If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Hebrews chapter 12, or you can find it there written on the print out in the pew, I believe. But if you want to turn there in your Bibles we’ll look at a few different places in Hebrews as we study this passage tonight.
And there’s a lot we don’t know about the writer of Hebrews. There’s been debate about his identity throughout the years of Church history. But as we’ve read through this book on Sunday nights over the last few months there are certain things we can pick up on and say with a fair degree of certainty about this writer. We can say that he was a pastor. He showed a particular care and concern for this congregation to whom he wrote. He was a writer. He had a sharp mind and he was able to use language and words and concepts to convey a message to these people. He was a historian. He was well versed in the Old Testament figures and in the events of the Old Testament as we have seen throughout this book. And he was a covenant theologian; he stresses over and over again the significance of the new covenant.
As we come to chapter 12 tonight, I’m somewhat convinced that this writer of Hebrews was a runner. If he wasn’t a runner, he knew a lot about competing in long distance races because listen to just a few of the things that he writes in this chapter. He says, “Run with endurance the race set before us,” verse 1. He says in verse 3, “Do not grow weary or fainthearted.” Verse 12 and 13, he says, “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” That sounds like someone who could identify with the sport of running – not the cool events like the 100 meter dash and the 4×100 meter relay. No, we’re talking about the long distance races; the things like a 5k or maybe even a marathon.
A few weeks ago I was at the MAIS state cross country meet at Choctaw Trails here in Jackson. And our oldest son was one of the runners in that meet along with about ten other members of this church. They know what it means to run with endurance. Someone told me they had seen a cross country shirt one time and it said, “Your sport’s punishment is our sport.” See, other sports, the coaches make their athletes run as punishment, but with cross country, that is the sport, and it’s exhausting! Molly and I were exhausted just from watching! I don’t know why! This is a cross country passage, this passage in Hebrews chapter 12. It’s a call to run with endurance. It’s a call to persevere in the Christian life.
But before we read it, let me just stress one thing and make one thing clear as we come to this passage. And it’s this – that the call to persevere is not just a call to hold on. The call to persevere, the call to run with endurance is not a call just to cope with difficulties and not to give up. No, it’s a call to persevere and to run with endurance towards something or in something. It’s a call to persevere in holiness. It’s a call to persevere in the very thing that Tony just taught the children – “to be made more and more holy in heart and in conduct.” This is a call to live a life of obedience to God, to grow in godliness from the beginning of the Christian life until the end of the Christian life. You see, we’re not just trying to make it or just hope that our faith will hold up in some way. No, we are trying to be distinct. We are trying to be shaped and molded by God’s grace and to be characterized as people of righteousness. It seems like holiness is not as much of a focus of our lives as it should be. And so we need this exhortation tonight. We need this encouragement from the writer of Hebrews to struggle against sin, to run with endurance, and to pursue the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.”
And so as we read these verses tonight, I want us to look at it along three lines, three things to notice about holiness. One, is that holiness is for all Christians. Two, holiness is for all of the Christian or for the whole Christian. And then three, holiness is for all of the Christian life. So before we read, let’s go to the Lord and ask for His help as we read and study His Word.
Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for the encouragements that we so dearly need. We are oftentimes prone to discouragement and we are tempted to grow weary and fainthearted and to look a lot like the ways of the world and the people around us. And so we pray that You would encourage us by Your Word, and by the work of the Spirit open Your Word to us tonight, and by the work of Your Spirit make us more and more like Christ. Make us more and more holy in our hearts and in our conduct, for Your glory and praise. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Hebrews chapter 12. We’ll read the first seventeen verses:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall but the Word of our God endures forever.
Holiness is for All Christians
Holiness is for all Christians. This passage begins with role models and it ends with a cautionary tale. It says that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” in verse 1, and then when we get to verse 16 it says, “See that no one is unholy like Esau.” You see, Esau is the opposite of those who are described in Hebrews chapter 11, the opposite of those who we learned about last week – the people who believed God’s promises; the people who sacrificed immediate gains and even suffered mistreatment in order to gain the reward of God. Esau, though, Esau on the other hand was a man of the world. We’re told that he sold his birthright for a single meal. He sold his birthright just to fill his belly. That birthright, you see, that was the promise of God to Abraham, the promise that God made to Abraham and He would be his God and that his people would be God’s people. And the promise that God said to Abraham that He would bless him and through him he would be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Esau rejected those covenant blessings. He didn’t want anything to do with them. He rejected them in a moment of hunger and his life was shaped by the fleeting pleasures of sin. His life was characterized by worldliness in so many ways. It says in verse 16 that he was “unholy” or some translations say he was “profane.”
And what we’re being made to see here, or meant to see, is that there is a distinction; there is a distinction between the godly and the ungodly. That those who are commended for their faith in Hebrews chapter 11 are set apart from those who are like Esau. In fact, that’s one of the common bonds that really binds together all of those figures of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. It’s that they stood alone. They were set apart from the world around them. Think about Abraham. Abraham was called out to leave his family and to leave his country and to go and live in a foreign country. And there was Moses. He gave up the wealth and the riches of Egypt in order to identify with and to help and to deliver the enslaved people of Israel. And there was Rahab and her family. They were the only ones of all the people of Jericho who were spared in the invasion and the settlement of the Promised Land. And then we read about those who were mistreated, those who suffered, those who gave up all of their worldly comforts – all for the sake of waiting on God’s blessing for them. God’s people, you see, are called to be distinct from the world around them. We are called to be holy.
I can’t help but thinking about what John Stott wrote once in one of his commentaries. He says that, “No comment could be more hurtful of the Christian than the words, ‘But you are no different from anybody else.’” We are called to be different. We are called to be holy. In fact, I think that’s one of the things that the writer is saying here about the cloud of witnesses, that these cloud of witnesses from Hebrews chapter 11, they are witnessing, they are testifying that this way of life as God’s people which is distinct from the world and alone in many ways, that it is worth it. And they are commended for their faith. They are validated in their faith and in their lifestyle. That is what they are witnessing. That is what they are testifying to us as we read case after case of those men and women of faith in the Old Testament. A call to be holy. All Christians are called to be holy.
Last week I looked up, I did a search for some of the best books on holiness. What are some of the best books that were written on holiness? And some of the ones that came up in the list was, Holiness by J.C. Ryle. There was Rediscovering Holiness by J.I. Packer. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. The man who compiled the list, he said as you read through the list you start to wonder if only people who are known by just their initials can be qualified to write about holiness! That’s not completely true but sometimes it seems that way. I wonder if sometimes we’re tempted to think, “Let’s let those two-letter guys write about holiness. Let’s let them worry about holiness too. Holiness is for a separate level of Christians, a separate category of people.”
But Hebrews won’t let us think that way. This book won’t let us think that way. This, you see, is the “so what” section of the book of Hebrews. One writer says that, “This is the pastoral and theological climax of this sermon.” What he’s saying here in these verses, it applies to every person who is reading and hearing these words as a follower of Jesus. Everything he’s been writing so far, everything about how Jesus is superior, how Jesus is better, everything he’s written about hope and about the blessings of the new covenant and about how we have a clear conscience before God, all of that is leading up to these imperatives to live a life that is pleasing to God. It’s leading up to the imperatives to pursue holiness, to pursue godliness, to pursue Christlikeness and piety. This call to holiness is for every single Christian, no matter how old you are, no matter what your background is, no matter how long you’ve been a Christian – whether it’s been for a long time or just for a few days. And it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. We’re all called to live in a certain way that brings pleasure and honor to God.
And you notice what the writer says in these verses. Notice some of the things that he calls us to do in that calling of holiness. He says in verse 14, “Strive for peace with everyone.” Verse 15 he says, “See that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.” Verse 16 he says, “See that no one is sexually immoral.” Think about that list of things he’s calling us to tonight. We need to hear those things, don’t we, because we live in a very divisive society. Those divisions are magnified. The differences between us are oftentimes celebrated and they’re magnified in so many ways we’re encouraged to think and to act in an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Christians are called to be different. Christians are called to be peacemakers, to be patient and forgiving and loving and kind with those who are different from us and to do that with those who may be difficult to love. Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, that call to be a peacemaker means a call to be a peacemaker among those who are closest to you – to those in your family and to those in the church. This calling is a call to make peace, to be those who pursue peace with everyone.
And then we also live in a time when people tend to be very much on edge. The disruptions of this pandemic have tested our patience. They’ve worn our nerves thin in many ways. People, you may have heard people talking about something called “pandemic fatigue.” And we’re tired in many ways of the precautions we have to take with social distancing and wearing masks and being concerned about our own health. I can’t help but think about some of what you hear in many churches about the conflict that has arisen over the issue of wearing masks. It really points out to us, it makes us aware how easy it is to insist on our rights and it shows us how sometimes our unity and our peace is so fragile, even within the church. Something so simple as a mask can cause conflict in many places. I don’t think that’s as much the case here, and thank God for that, but all of us, all of us have to watch out. We have to watch out for bitterness and cynicism and for having a complaining attitude about our circumstances. What the writer of Hebrews is calling us to is to live with contentment with where God has placed us and what He is doing in our lives.
And then we also live in a time, in a culture, which is basically obsessed with sex. There’s a worship of sex in our culture around us. There are almost no boundaries towards our physical appetites and personal desires. And the TV and the internet habits of so many are numbing our consciences to the dangers of sexual sin. But a holy life, a holy life means honoring God with what we watch as well as in dating relationships and in the relationship of marriage as well.
Flip over with me to the next chapter and you’ll see how the writer of Hebrews, in chapter 13 verse 4, he picks back up on this call to holiness in our relationships. He says in verse 4, “Let marriage be held in honor among all and let the marriage bed be undefiled. For God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” The writer here is calling us in chapter 12 and chapter 13 to pursue purity, to protect and to promote the purity of marriage relationship – no matter if you’re single or if you’re married – to protect and to promote the purity of marriage.
Holiness is for All of the Christian
And as we think about these calls to holiness and how there’s a call against bitterness and divisiveness and against sexual immorality, and you think about our own culture – our own culture, almost everything about it is working against the pursuit of holiness. Isn’t it? Almost everything is working against holiness. And that’s why holiness takes our all. That’s why holiness takes all of our heart and our mind and our body and our speech and our relationships and our occupations. It is calling us to our total commitment to pursue this way of life for God’s glory. You see, holiness is for all of the Christian. You notice how this is expressed in this chapter. Some of the words that the writer uses to express how we are to be fully engaged in the pursuit of holiness. He says in verse 4 there is the “struggle against sin.” Also in verse 4 he says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” And then you see in verses 12 and 14, there’s “lift up” and “strengthen” and “strive.”
And then there’s this whole section of this chapter that is dedicated to discipline. There’s a call to recognize the need for discipline. Verse 5, it says, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves and chastens every son whom He receives.” Verse 10, it says, “He disciplines us for our good that we may share His holiness.” You see, holiness comes through God’s discipline and it comes through our effort.
Another one of those books in the list about holiness was The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. See, he has a first name so it’s not all the other way! But Jerry Bridges’ book, The Pursuit of Holiness, is about the Christian’s responsibility to grow in godliness. And he said shortly after he wrote that book that one of the things he regretted about it and one of the things he felt he stressed too much maybe was man’s effort and not spending as much time and focusing as much on the motivation and the work of God’s grace and His mercy in the growth in holiness, in the pursuit of holiness. And so what he did was, he came back later and he wrote a book called, The Discipline of Grace. And he wrote that book to bring together what he says is “the Biblical principle of living by grace with the equally Biblical principle of personal action.” As I think about the struggle that Bridges had after writing those books, I wonder if we don’t so much stress the grace side that we oftentimes neglect the call to effort and action in the Christian life.
But here’s what Bridges wrote in The Discipline of Grace. He said, “The pursuit of holiness requires sustained and vigorous effort. It allows for no laziness, no lethargy, no half-hearted commitment, no casual attitude toward even the smallest sins. In short, it demands the highest priority in the life of a Christian because to be holy is to be like Christ, the goal of God for every Christian. At the same time, however, the pursuit of holiness must be anchored in the grace of God, otherwise it is doomed to failure.” You see what he’s saying? Grace and effort go hand in hand in the pursuit of holiness.
And that’s what we find here in Hebrews chapter 12. We find the discipline of God and the writer is talking about how they have gone through trials and disappointments, they have struggled against sin and they are being instructed and trained by God’s Word. Don’t miss the disciplining role of God’s Word in our lives. Remember what Paul says to Timothy. He says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” There’s a rebuking and a correcting work of God’s Word in our lives. That is God’s discipline for us and we’re to be disciplined and trained by His Word as well as by the circumstances that God brings into our lives. And He does all of that, He brings all of that to us out of His love. He does it because we are His children. He does it for our good.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, is it? Because there may be some of you here that no one really knows what you’re going through. No one really knows the relentlessness of an illness that you’re struggling with. No one knows what sort of pressure you’re facing to conform to the world or to conform to your peers or what your friends are doing. There may not be anyone who knows the consequences that you’re dealing with from a past mistake, a past sin. And what this passage is saying to us is that if you are a believer in Christ, those things are the very things God uses to discipline us and that God can use even those things to make us like Christ. I think we have to stop and consider the ways in which this pandemic might be God’s discipline in which He is calling for us to let go of our grip of the world and to pursue our love for Him and to pursue holiness and to pursue Christlikeness and not worldliness. There’s a call to holiness through discipline. It’s not easy, and that’s why the Christian life, that’s why the pursuit of holiness requires perseverance. Notice what it says in verse 7. It says, “It is for discipline that you have to endure.” It is for discipline that you have to endure.
Holiness is for All of the Christian Life
So we can say thirdly that holiness is for all of the Christian life. Let’s look at one other place in the book of Hebrews. If you would flip back with me to chapter 10; the passage we looked at a few weeks ago. It says in verse 32 – notice what he says here – Hebrews 10:32, “But recall the former days, when after you were enlightened you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence which has great reward, for you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.”
Do you see what he’s saying there? He’s reminding this church that in their past they had experienced difficulties and trials and they had looked in faith to the promises of God, the blessings of God, and they had pursued a life of obedience and a life of joy and a life of compassion. In other words, they had pursued holiness, but now they need to keep going. Now they need to keep pursuing holiness. They need to run with endurance because holiness is for all of life. It’s not for a particular season in life. There’s no retirement age when it comes to the work of sanctification. No, there is always sin that we need to resist and put to death and there is always more fruit of righteousness that we can cultivate in our lives and in our hearts.
And you know this. In a race, that all the runners in a race – what do they do? They run the whole race in order to get to the finish line. But what happens at the end? The runners put in more effort and they run in an even stronger way in order to finish strong so that they will not grow weary or fainthearted. They run strong until the end. And that’s what we’re called to do. There may be some of us here today that are catering to a particular sin in your life. And maybe you can identify some of the things the writer warns us against in this chapter. Things like anger and bitterness and lust. There may be some here today that are questioning your own commitment to Christ. And you need to hear; we all need to hear this exhortation from Hebrews chapter 12, verses 1 and 2. The exhortation to “lay aside every weight,” to “lay aside every sin that ensnares us and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. And look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, and He despised the shame, and now He is seated at the right hand of God.” Look to Jesus. You see, Jesus is the only way of salvation and His way is the right way and He will lead you to the finish line. He will lead you to the victory, to the great reward that He has accomplished for us.
One more cross country illustration. I told you this was a cross country passage! In cross country meets there is always a four-wheeler or some sort of an off-road vehicle that goes ahead of the runners and it leads the way through the course. It shows them the way to go and it will guide them all the way to the end of the race. And the runners have to look, they have to look at that car that’s gone ahead of them if they want to go the right way and if they want to finish the race. Well like that very pace-setting car, Jesus also has gone ahead of us. He’s set the course and He’s finished the race. And we have to keep our eyes on Jesus, keep our eyes fixed on Him to run with endurance and to get to the finish line.
But there’s something about that illustration that breaks down, something about the analogy that breaks down. Doesn’t it? It’s that the driver of the four-wheeler, he hasn’t exerted himself in the least bit. He hasn’t exerted himself any more than Molly and I have when we were just sitting there watching. He doesn’t know the endurance that it takes. He doesn’t know the fatigue and the exertion that the runners have given to run the race. But Jesus does because He has suffered and He has endured the cross. He’s faced the shame. He took on the hostility and He shed His own blood for us. Jesus knows the discipline and the hardships and the struggle because He has done it. He was made like us in every way yet without sin. And verse 2 tells us why He did that. Why did Jesus do all of that? Why did He put Himself through it? Verse 2 tells us. It was “for the joy that was set before Him.” It was for the joy that was set before Him that He suffered and bled and died. It was for the joy that was set before Him that He overcame death in His resurrection.
And what was that joy? It’s you. You’re His joy. His joy is you and me and our reward that He has gained for us in our salvation. And that’s the same reason that we’re to run with endurance. Why are we to run with endurance? It’s for the joy that was set before us. What is that joy? It’s Jesus. Jesus is our joy. And it’s because He is our joy that we want to run with perseverance, that we want to run with endurance the race that’s set before us. And so now do you see the role of grace, the work of grace in the run of endurance and the pursuit of holiness? It’s His joy and love for us that has accomplished our salvation and it’s our joy and love for Him that presses us on to the finish. It’s grace behind us and it’s grace ahead of us and it’s grace every step of the way. It’s joy behind us and it’s joy ahead of us and it’s joy every step of the way.
Holiness is all about enjoying God. That’s why holiness is such a big deal. Jesus bled and died and was raised for our holiness. Holiness brings us joy. It is what is truly good for us in every circumstance and holiness includes us in that great cloud of witnesses that he writes about in Hebrews verses 1 and 2. We become a part of that cloud of witnesses – that we can testify of the reality of our faith and the certainty of God’s promises. How will the next generation recognize the significance of what we say we believe? And how will the next generation be encouraged to press on in the way of faith and the way of holiness? It’s through our own pursuit of holiness with all of ourselves for all of our lives. Do you want to see the Lord? Do you want to enjoy Him and to help others do the same? Run the race with endurance. Strive for holiness.
And maybe you’re here tonight and you don’t know joy in Jesus. Maybe you can’t see the place of discipline in your life and you’re not pursuing holiness but you want to. Would you go out those doors at the end of the service to your right and talk to the pastor that will be there waiting for you and tell him about your concern and tell him about your hopes and your desires and let him talk with you and pray with you. Because you see, you can trust in Jesus and you can look to Him to run the race with endurance and to pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. That’s the call for every one of us here tonight – to pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Holiness is for all Christians. It’s for all of the Christian. And it’s for all of the Christian life. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank You for this encouragement and we thank you for the One who has run before us and who has set the course and has accomplished the victory. We thank You for Jesus. We marvel at who He is; as the writer of Hebrews has presented to us again and again the glory and the majesty and the splendor and the beauty of Jesus, and yet He was the One who came and suffered and struggled and endured and went through hostility and pain, persecution, death on a cross for us and for our salvation. And as He has been raised from the dead, we now in resurrection power and the gift of the Holy Spirit ask that You would lead us in holiness, in Christlikeness, that we would display Your glory in the world around us and that You would keep us till the end. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.
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