As we are drawing to the end of our study through Hebrews, we are all becoming weary, tired, depressed and it feels like we should just give it up and move on.
This is exactly how the original recipients of this epistle felt like. They were tired of living as Christians in a place and a time that wasn’t accepting Christians. Society then was open to just about anything except Christianity. We can’t really avoid the similarities then and now: People will accept any topic for a casual conversation, but you mention Christ and you’re out. Faith-talk is ok as long as you believe in celestial beings, energies, ancestors, gods, God… but once you throw in Christ, then you’ve stepped over the line.
You can talk just about any motivational speaker or performance coach. People will accept just about any spiritualized motivational talk, as long as you don’t mention the Bible and Christ. But the thing is that once we give Christ and the Bible a chance, once we’re open enough to listen, we get to see that there’s plenty to learn about life from Christ and the Bible.
The epistle to the Hebrews is a great epistle that speaks to us today. Chapter 10 gave us a great summary of all the previous chapters: You’ve been liberated by Christ. Stand up, dust off. Get close to God, together, as a community. Don’t give up on one another. Keep pushing each other to growth in all areas of life no matter how dismal things may look. We are a part of a family of believers that stretches from here into eternity. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the suffering, we must keep on keeping on. This is the foundation upon which the last 3 chapters are set.
In Chapter 11 we saw that Faith is more about what you understand about Christ today, that influences your tomorrow, based on your experiences yesterday. Faith is a cyclic thing that keeps on growing the more you use it and shapes your life into a living testimony that God is truthful, reliable, trustworthy, loving etc.
Now, almost at the end, in Chapter 12 we get to see two more key ideas about going through life the right way. The first idea is endurance in the face of disillusionment, keeping on when the going gets mostly monotonous and when it seems that whatever we do, things will not really change. The second one is the idea of thinking vs. action, where Action is what shapes us, rather the thoughts we have.
vv. 1-17: Endurance in the face of disillusionment is just a few steps to a revolution
In our text we see here in the first 3 verses a good illustration of the definition of faith in Ch 11:
Faith is more about what you understand about Christ today, that influences your tomorrow, based on your experiences yesterday:
- Because of this cloud of witnesses: based on our experience yesterday
- Let us run with perseverance the race: Influences our actions tomorrow
- Focus our eyes on Jesus: What we understand about Christ today
In these first verses we can see that people were just tired of the daily grind of Christian life:
- always being in conflict with authorities of the time for seeing Christ as God, not the emperor
- facing financial difficulties because they didn’t want to stick to white crime, i.e. “everybody shortchanges, why shouldn’t I” type of thinking
- faced rejection by family and friends because their radical new faith meant no more temple prostitution, no more drinking beyond measure, no more succumbing to peer pressure just to be a part of a group
And most of the times we feel the same way, and we’re mostly tired not because of our overly devout life, nor because of the lure of sin, but because we are simply tired of the internal battle every-single-day. We’re tired of constantly having to keep our guard up.
Today, we may feel precisely like this. Especially if we live in smaller places, it’s easy to start thinking that despite all our efforts in life, things just stay the way they are. Nothing changes, noting gets better… actually as time goes by things seem to just turn worse and worse:
- Fewer people understand and appreciate us and our efforts
- Fewer conversations have any meaning or depth
- Fewer things get done the right way
Everything just seems pointless, so why bother? And this is exactly where most of us just give up trying to be better people. Things are OK while we hear of people revolting against whatever. That is a clear sign that they are still engaged in life. It is alarming when most of the people just give up fighting, give up trying and just accept that nothing will change. So why try?
Where do we get motivation to keep on? The text here reminds us that whenever we feel like giving up a dedicated Christian life, we have to remember Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. By remembering Him, we get reminded that we’re not alone in our suffering, of whatever sort that may be. Being social beings, we take comfort knowing that we don’t suffer alone, that there is Christ, beside us, encouraging us to take the next right step. And at that moment, the next right step is all there is, all that matters.
In an interview with a Formula 1 driver, the reporter that asked the Motivation question and a very good answer from one driver: I don’t think of the ultimate end of the race. It takes too long and you quickly lose sight and lose interest because of the tremendous strain on the body at those speeds. Instead, what I do is focus on one point of the lap where I give myself the right to take a sip of water. Straining every single muscle in your body quickly gets you tired and thirsty, so the race is on for that sip of water each lap. The faster I drive, the faster I get to drink.
The driver’s focus was the water. Our focus should be Christ and the example life he set.
But the text doesn’t just stay in the realm of encouragement as if we feel like giving up just we need a motivational speech. Ch. 12 continues on into a talk about the suffering we endure, and the role of this suffering, i.e. discipline in our lives.
We get to see here that in this life, hardships come as a stern teacher to teach us the hard lesson of relying on Christ to push through this life of becoming like God in a sense of liking what he likes, treating others as He’d treat them, doing what He would do.
The goal of the text is to point out that just like parental discipline is for the good of the child, God allows us to feel pain so we’d see the world from a different, His perspective. Gaining God’s perspective is needed for a proper life. And we do need to understand that the author of Hebrews here isn’t trying to address a theological point of suffering. He’s looking at the congregation and speaks to these people as a concerned pastor.
The idea about the suffering in this text is similar to a mechanical process of manufacturing by deformations (pressing, extruding, bending etc). There are two zones of metal deformations: metal working with elastic deformations, and metal work with plastic deformation. When a rod is loaded with a small amount of force, it bends, but once the load is removed, it returns to its original state. This is called elastic deformations. But as we put more and more load to the iron rod, at a certain load, it passes a threshold of elasticity, and passes into the zone of plastic deformations. Then, even if we remove the load, the rod will not return to its previous shape. Our work has resulted with something. We’ve changed the rod. It’s bent. When we continue bending a rod, or a wire, we turn it into a metal spring. It wasn’t an easy process but we made something out of a metal rod.
Thing is, some of the recipients of this text were just standing on the sidelines, going in and out of church, feeling just a little bit of that force with which God is trying to shape people from vision-less stumps into great Christ-like people. Such a life is always in the elastic zone. Such people will never really allow God to change them. Perhaps out of fear, or maybe because they just don’t want to bother.
But the challenge here, and the call to Christian living is that we actually are called to change, to grow.
Christian living, looking at it as a marathon race, is not that we have to be perfect athletes in order to participate, it is participation that is perfecting us. The key is that we must push on even when it feels like we can’t continue. So ultimately we are not in the marathon lane because we are great athletes. Chances are we are crippled and barely moving. However, it is this limping, this dragging along that will eventually make us into the great athletes, into the Christ-like people that God always knew we can become… IF we kept our eyes on Christ, and IF we keep on running, past the zone of comfort, past the elastic zone and well into the plastic zone, where life takes kids and makes them into mature men and women of God.
In summary of this first part then, we’d say that the first 17 verses are all about focus and endurance: The glass is half full with Christ. God’s allowing your suffering so you too would grow up. Keep working where you are, the way you are. Working will shape your godliness far better than passive meditation and philosophizing.
vv.18-29: The meaning of life has to do with doing a lot more than with thinking
How we think of Christ affects how we follow his teaching. If we merely see Him as a good moral teacher then we keep to his teaching for as long as we feel like it. With such thinking we’d be well within the zone of plastic deformations, if you will. However, if we see Christ as God, then following him isn’t just a pick and choose deal. It has to be life-altering. We have to get deep into the zone of plastic deformations, where we get molded and shaped into a far better person that we’ve ever dreamt possible.
But there is a catch, and we’ve touched on it a bit: is not that we have to be perfect athletes in order to participate, it is participation itself that is perfecting us.
The mentions of Sinai and Zion here is what will help us understand better how it is that Doing is more important than Thinking. What we do is who we are.
Mt. Sinai was the place where we see for the first time that people received a written set of instructions from God. And the content of this written set was the 10 Commandments. They revolved around a single phrase: Thou shalt not! Most of the times, even today, when you talk about proper things, laws most of the times tell you what NOT to do. So as long as you don’t break the rules, you’re OK. But you can just as well never break the rules by not doing a single thing. That still doesn’t add up to a “good life”. Mt. Sinai then, from the author’s perspective, is a list of restrictions, not a list of instructions.
Fliping to Mt. Zion, where historically judeo-christian tradition turns to be closer to God, is a set of just one simple instruction: For all your shortcomings, Christ bailed you out. You’re free to go. Now that we don’t have to prove anything to anybody thanks to Christ’s intervention in human history and in individual lives, through faith, we can now finally move past the thinking about devout Christian living, and onto actually living out Christianity.
In summary of this chapter, we deal with two groups of thoughts. First, it’s about focus and endurance: The glass is half full with Christ. God’s allowing your suffering so you too would grow up. Keep working where you are, the way you are. Working will shape your godliness far better than passive meditation and philosophizing.
Second, it’s about doing, not thinking: Sinai keeps you occupied with how incompatible you are to the holy God. Whenever you want to step out and do good, it reminds you of your shortcomings. Zion on the other hand has one statement about you: “Not Guilty”. It frees you from proving your worth so you can live. Then, through a lifetime of following Christ, you prove that you were always worthy, thanks to Christ.
How do we apply these things to our daily lives?
- What you know today about Christ influences what you do tomorrow, based on your experiences yesterday. It’s called faith and it plays into your life once you start using it.
- God isn’t our enemy when life situations get challenging. It is precisely in those moments that we have to keep on pushing, and get past the elastic zone and into the plastic zone where real change gets done. Only then can we say we’re moving forward.