|Eyes on Jesus! (Hebrews 12:1-13)
Eyes on Jesus!
Minister’s Summary: Yes, we learn from the examples of those who have journeyed the faith-path before us. But ultimately we look to Jesus himself. By keep his eye on the goal (i.e., joy set before him), he endured and triumphed. He has become the focal point for our own faith.
We might say that the preacher really does get to the point now. He brings the witnesses of faith to the climactic example of Jesus, our priest. He points them to Jesus as the ultimate example of faith.
But he also gets to the point by interpreting their present and anticipated suffering. He interprets the hardship, which they are about to endure as one in which God is active. God is involved. He is not disconnected from this suffering or an outsider to it. He is using it for his purposes.
This material raises some important questions and perspectives for how Christians deal with suffering, even persecution (which is the context of our text). God uses suffering to discipline train and educate his people. He uses it to refine us, mature us and prepare us for holiness and the fuller experience of his own reality.
Consequently, this text creates some tension; and our classes may reflect some of this same tension. How involved is God in the suffering of his people? Clearly, he involved himself in their suffering through the empathetic incarnation of Jesus who experienced temptation, testing and weaknesses alongside of his people. However, is God an agent in our suffering, in this Roman persecution? Does God have a goal, intent? Is God active in our suffering? Hebrews 12 addresses some of these questions and points to one matrix for interpreting suffering in the fallen world.
The “witnesses” are not spectators in an arena, but rather those who have borne witness to the endurance of faith. They testify about faith. Their stories encourage present believers. They ran the race through perseverance and completed their journey. Now they are witness to the power of faith for the journey.
These witnesses call us to follow them. Consequently, the preacher appeals to his hearers to cast off “the sin” (notice how definite that is; it is not “sins,” but “the sin”) that hinders them from running. I think the “sin” is probably the sin of apostasy, which is the danger for the preacher’s audience. Rather than quitting and hanging back, continue the race and finish the journey.
However, the primary witness to faith is Jesus himself. He joined us in the race. He himself suffered and joined us in our suffering. He ran the race and he persevered through faith. He is our champion; our pioneer. Consequently, fix your eyes on him. Keep his example ever before you.
We must not undermine the example of Jesus by appealing to his divine character. When he joined the race and entered the journey of faith, he became one of us and shared our reality. His temptations were real. The danger of apostasy was real for him. He could have been hindered by “the sin” as well. His humanity was full and real, and his hurt and shame was real and tempting. His suffering was like our suffering. Thus, he is a model for us. If we affirm anything that detracts or undermines the reality of the model for us, then we reflect a shallow understanding of the incarnation (that he became flesh and blood alongside of us).
His endurance is directly related to the “joy” that was set before him. It is related to the goal or promise; that is, it was his faith. He knew joy was ahead of him; he knew the promise of God’s exaltation. Consequently, he was willing to endure the suffering and shame for the sake of the joy.
The situation of the preacher’s audience is clarified a bit in Hebrews 12:3-4 when Jesus suffering is placed in the context of opposition from sinful men and when the preacher notes that they had not yet resisted evil unto blood. In other words, they can expect martyrdom. They will experience hostility and death from evil people, just as Jesus did. The open question is whether they will run the race to the end just as Jesus did.
But how are we to understand the coming persecution? Why does God permit this persecution? Why did he permit the crucifixion and death of his own Son? What purpose does God have in this permission of suffering? What purpose does God see in suffering at all?
The classic text for God's pedagogical purposes in discipline is Hebrews 12 (the Greek verbs and nouns for discipline are used eight times in verses 5-11). The writer of Hebrews draws upon an Old Testament understanding of discipline as he applies those principles to the situation in which his readers find themselves. The Old Testament principles of discipline are applicable to New Testament saints. The writer anticipates that his readers will face another period of persecution as in the earlier days of their faith. He calls them to remember those early days when they "stood [their] ground in a great contest in the face of suffering" (Hebrews 10:32). They were publicly insulted and persecuted. Some were thrown in prison and others had their property confiscated (Hebrews 10:33-34). The believers persevered then, and now they must expect another contest of suffering. The writer anticipates that there will be a renewal of this persecution or some kind of struggle that may involve the death of some in their community. They have not yet had any martyrs, but there may be some in the future (Hebrews 12:4).
Whatever the nature of this coming struggle, the writer offers an interpretation of it. It does not come as some punishment for sin, nor does it come because God is angry with his people. Rather, it is a discipline that arises out God's love. It is the kind of discipline that a father offers his child (Hebrews 12: 7-10). The writer of Hebrews quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 as a "word of encouragement that address [them] as sons" (Hebrews 12:5b-6):
The term translated "punish" is actually a verb, which means to "flog," just as Jesus was flogged and his disciples were told that they would be flogged (Matthew 10:17; 20:19; 23:34; Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33; John 19:1). Indeed, some of the previous witnesses mentioned in chapter eleven had suffered flogging (Hebrews 11:36). The original readers of Hebrews could, perhaps, expect some of that themselves. The context here does not mean "punishment" as when God expresses his righteous judgment against a sinner, but rather refers to the infliction of pain which discipline involves. God chastises his people; he afflicts them with pain for the sake of a higher goal. The notion of "rebuke" is a similar idea. This rebuke does not arise out of anger, but out of a desire for God's people to reach a higher level of maturity. God has a goal in mind, and he disciplines his people in view of that goal. He disciplines them according to the dictates of his love in the light of his goal for them—the future they cannot yet see.
The readers, therefore, should not misinterpret this new wave of persecution as a sign of God's anger. They must understand it as a sign of his love. It is God's fatherly attention just as earthly fathers give attention to their children. They should be encouraged rather than discouraged by this new struggle. God seeks to train his people through this pain. God seeks to educate his people so that they are equipped to share God's holiness and communion. In order to persevere through the struggle, believers need to keep their eye on the goal to which God has called them. This is the example of Jesus. He is the model of endurance, just as the heroes of faith are models in Hebrews 11. Jesus endured the cross with all its shame in order to experience the joy that was set before him, and even now he sits at the right hand of God (Hebrews 11:2). Likewise, all the faithful who have gone before witness to the power of faith. Though their faith did not receive what it hoped for in this life, nevertheless it persevered because they sought a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:13-16; 39-40; 12:1). God used struggle in their life to strengthen their faith so that it might persevere.
It is important to see God's intent here. God disciplines and he chastises (causes pain, even flogs) for a reason. It is a reason that is more significant than the pain of the discipline. The pain has a purpose. The author writes (Hebrews 12:10b-11): What does God intend in discipline? He intends something that is for our own good. The good he intends is that we might share in his holiness. The discipline trains us in such a way that it produces righteousness and peace, and the effect of this discipline is that we share God's holiness. God uses suffering and pain to produce a fruit whose purpose is that we might share his holiness.
What does it mean to share God's holiness? It certainly includes the cultivation of fruit in our lives so that when the harvest of righteousness and peace is produced, we reflect God's holiness. But there is more since "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). There is an eschatological meaning here as well as the promise of God's current presence as we approach his throne (Hebrews 12:22ff). In order to enter into the eschatological presence of God, we must be holy. To be holy we must be sanctified by the work of Christ (Hebrews 10:14). To be sanctified by the blood of Christ we must persevere in faith. If perseverance means to endure suffering for the sake of the joy set before us, that is, the joy of God's presence, then suffering is worth the goal. God uses suffering and pain--he disciplines us--in order to bring us closer to that goal. If Jesus suffered for the sake of the joy set before him, and the faithful of chapter eleven struggled for the sake of the promise, then the present people of God must expect to suffer as well. It is the goal of faith that makes suffering worthwhile. If discipline is a means to the joy, then discipline should be endured for the sake of the joy. The joy, however, is no earthly paradise. It is communion with God in the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem.
In this context, James makes sense. Just as the writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers to endure trials for the sake of discipline, so James encouraged his readers to "consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2). And the one who "perseveres under the trial, because he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12). We do not rejoice because of the discipline, but we rejoice in the intent of the discipline. We rejoice in the light of its goal. The crown of life is worth the trials, and God disciplines us with that goal in mind. God acts, sometimes by inflicting pain, even floggings, so that we might be trained and prepared to share his holiness. God intends good even when it seems painful and senseless to us.
As a sufferer who has experienced tragedy in many forms (loss of child, loss of spouse, loss of parent, divorce), this is probably one of the more difficult texts in Hebrews to integrate experientially.
In one sense it is not difficult for sufferers. We live with suffering and we connect with fellow-sufferers. So, we feel with and understand as insiders to suffering what these Roman Christians were probably feeling. But it is difficult in another sense. What the text says is “hard” emotionally. We don’t want to believe that God is involved in our suffering. We don’t want to think of our suffering as pedagogical, refining, or maturing. We don’t think it is fair that God would teach us through the suffering of another, which, in turn, causes our own suffering.
But the “hard” lesson of this text is that God has intentions in his discipline. He has a goal. He is at work shaping his people, refining them, educating them and preparing them for the experience of holiness. He refines his people through the crucible of suffering in order to bear the fruit of righteousness in a world that needs to see righteousness. Through discipline, he produces for witness for faith and more righteousness in his world.
Too often we want to distant God from the suffering as if we are trying to protect him. The preacher does not point to Satan as the main figure in this discipline (persecution). He points to God as the one who is at work to shape his people.
As a sufferer I don’t like hearing that. But as a believer I take great comfort from knowing that God is at work through my suffering for his purposes and his purposes include shaping me into his image—to bear his righteousness and share his holiness.
This is no different from what God has done all through redemptive history, as even the preacher quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. Indeed, it is exactly what God did in Jesus. He perfected his Son through suffering, and even now, through suffering, he is perfecting us.
Ultimately, this text provides an interpretative matrix for our enduring of suffering. We should interpret our suffering in the light of God’s educational program. We interpret suffering as divine discipline (training) to shape us into his image. We look through the suffering to see the divine goal of sharing his holiness and bearing witness to his righteousness by the fruit in our lives. We bear witness to the power of faith. We follow Jesus who testifies to faith, and we follow the witnesses the surround us, and we become part of the group of witnesses who testify to the joy that faithful endurance brings.
Depending on your class situation, be careful with this text in the light of who is attending your class. If there are raw edges of recent, tragic suffering, this text may seem too emotionally difficult. There are times in our suffering when we are ready to hear things and times when we are not ready to hear them. Consequently, be sensitive to who is in your class and how recent their wounds are.
In the case of recent words, it might be best to avoid discussion of any divine causation in our suffering (e.g., “God flogs us”). Rather, concentrate on God’s intent for us in the midst of suffering. Even if he does not cause it, he uses it. To what use does God put the de facto reality of suffering? What “good” can God work through suffering and despite suffering? We can talk about this question without ever discussion whether God “caused” any particular suffering.
In talking about this text, also keep your discussion close to the text. Bring your class back to the text over and over. Let the text speak for itself; engage the text. Rather than chasing rabbits about theodicy (justifying God in the face of suffering) or about divine causation of particular events, focus on the pastoral intent of this text and its exact wording. Bring the class back to a discussion of the text in the light the circumstances of its first readers and how its principles might shape us.