Updated: Mar 8, 2020
You may have seen the inspirational movie Chariots of Fire. It is about the champion sprinter, Harold Abrahams and in one scene we see him suffer his first race defeat. After the race he sat alone, pouting and ready to give up. When his girlfriend tried to encourage him, he shouted, “If I can’t win, I won’t run!” His girlfriend wisely replied, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.” Well those wise words encouraged Harold Abrahams to persevere and he went on to win the 1924 Olympic Gold Medal in the hundred-metre race.
The letter to the Hebrews was also encouragement to persevere. It was addressed primarily to Jewish converts to Christianity who were being tempted to revert to their old religion of Judaism. In the passage read today the writer to the Hebrews is encouraging them to persevere in faith.
He uses the analogy of running a race – a race that has Jesus and the salvation that he provides as the goal, and that must be run in faith: ‘let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ In this life race, the Jewish converts, and you and I, are provided with encouragement to persevere to attain the goal, and the writer does this by emphasizing a number of aspects of faith:
I. It is a faith that overcomes difficulties
The Israelites certainly had to overcome some difficulties! Through faith, Moses had obediently gone to Egypt to lead the people out of slavery, and by faith they had responded and followed Moses out into the desert. But now, they were being pursued by the Egyptian Army and had no way of defending themselves. They had to depend upon God, and so when God told Moses to stretch out his staff, Moses did as he was commanded, the sea parted and as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, ‘By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land’ (v.29).
After reaching the land of Canaan, the ancient Hebrew nation had to face the difficulty of overcoming the impregnable city of Jericho. This city stood as a symbol of Canaan’s invincible might. Again, the Israelites put their faith in God and for seven days obediently marched around the city carrying the ark of the covenant, blowing the trumpets and shouting until the walls fell down and they were able to take the city.
Rahab the prostitute also faced a difficult conundrum – to ‘... perish with those who were disobedient’ to God (v.31) or to risk the danger of death if she was found to have sheltered Hebrew spies. She might not have had the religious identity and moral integrity of the others whose faith is cited in these stories; but she put her faith in God and was delivered.
In this there is encouragement for all of us who struggle with holiness, temptation and sin. It is faith that saves us – not our merit! This fact is underlined by the mention of six other great men of faith from Israel’s history. Each of them were different in personality, social circumstances and spiritual opportunity, yet each put their faith in God and were brought through some difficulty. Calvin wrote,
“In every saint there is something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God.”
The first century Christians were also facing difficulties through the persecution and opposition of the Roman Empire and their Jewish opponents. By reminding them of these stories of how their ancestors faced and overcome difficulties through faith in God, the writer wants to encourage them, and us, that by faith they too might triumph over their difficulties. If we put our faith in God, each difficulty in life becomes another opportunity to prove the faithfulness of God’s word and power.
But there is more than just a simple prevailing in difficult circumstances. The writer goes on to remind the Hebrews of some of their historical heroes who indicate another aspect of faith ...
II. It is a faith that inspires courage and heroism
The Hebrews are reminded of Daniel in the lion’s den, the three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; the widow at Zarephath and the Shunammite woman both of whom received back a dead son.
Thousands of believers down through history have demonstrated their faith in God by persevering in the face of harsh trials and afflictions. Some, such as Zecharia and Stephen were stoned to death for declaring the truth; Isaiah is believed to have been placed inside a hollow log and then sawn in two; others have been burned alive, tortured, mocked or caused to suffer by some other means.
Their faith gave them the fortitude to endure, knowing that the future hope of resurrection to eternal life with God in heaven is worth far more than a few extra years on earth if they were to deny their belief in God. And so, through their faith, they were able to turn agonizing distress into triumphant achievement.
I am always reminded at this point of the inspiring faith of Corrie ten Boom who you will probably know was a Dutch Christian Holocaust survivor. She and her family helped many Jews escape the Nazis during World War II. The Germans arrested the entire ten Boom family on February 28, 1944 with the help of a Dutch informant. They were sent first to Scheveningen prison (where Corrie’s father died ten days after their capture). Later, Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to the Vught political concentration camp and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where Betsie died. Corrie was released on New Year's Eve of December 1944 and later learned that her release had been a clerical error. The women prisoners her age in the camp were killed the week following her release.
All through these ordeals and throughout her life Corrie ten Boom maintained courage and heroism because of her strong faith in God. She wrote in her book, "God does not have problems. Only plans." But Corrie always maintained that it was Betsie’s strong faith even as her health declined and death overtook her that enabled Corrie to persevere. Before she died Betsie told Corrie, "There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still."
Each of these people through history and others today are examples of how faith can enable us to overcome difficulties, and inspire courage and heroism. But there is an even more remarkable aspect to their faith and that is ...
III. It is a faith that awaits fulfilment
Each of these men and women of God still suffered and many like Betsie, Isaiah, Stephen and Zecharia unjustly and horribly died from the cruel things that they had to endure. And yet they persevered because their faith was in something that lay in the future. Through faith they were able to anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promise which, whilst being a present reality is still to be realized.
What does this mean? It means that the salvation that comes through Christ may be described as past, present, and future. When a person believes in Christ, he or she is saved (Acts 16:31). But we are also in the process of being saved from the power of sin (Rom 8:13; Phil 2:12). And finally, we shall be saved from the very presence of sin (Rom 13:11; Titus 2:12-13).
To express it another way, God releases into our lives today the power of Christ's resurrection (Rom 6:4) and allows us a foretaste of our future life as his children; (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:14) but our experience of salvation will not be complete until Christ returns (Heb 9:28) and the kingdom of God is fully revealed (Matt 13:41-43).
So, to have a saving faith involves personally depending on the finished work of Christ's sacrifice and making a personal commitment in our life to following Christ in obedience to his commands, even though the fulfillment of God’s promise to us lies in the future. 2 Tim 1:12 says, "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have committed to him until that Day"
And so in Hebrews 12:2 we are exhorted to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith’.
I prefer the NIV translation here: ‘fix our eyes on him’, rather than the NRSV rendering of ‘looking to Jesus’, because the sense of the original word indicates that the Christian running the race is aware of rival attractions – other things that might tempt us to take our eyes off Jesus. We are required to deliberately look away from those things that might distract us from following Jesus and keep our eyes ‘fixed on Jesus’ not only at the start of the race but constantly during the entire race until we reach the goal of eternal life. Jesus is the goal and objective of our faith.
Jesus is the ‘author’ of our faith in the sense that he provides the ultimate example of faith. He had to endure trials and adversity culminating in the agony of the cross – yet he went on with it until he was able to say, “it is finished”. It is because of his faith and the outcome of his persevering in faith that we are able to have faith.
And it is Jesus who perfects our faith – we can have the ultimate victorious completion of the race because Jesus finished the race, and we can have it only if we are in him. As Colossians 2:10 says, we ‘come to fullness in him’ This fullness, or completeness, includes the putting off of the old sinful nature, resurrection from spiritual death, forgiveness, and deliverance from the legalistic requirements of the law.
And finally, it is precisely because Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith that we can affirm the fourth aspect of faith that I wish to address today, and that is that …
IV. It is a trustworthy faith
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I and many of my peers placed our faith for the salvation of the world in science and mankind itself. We naively thought that we could solve everything and didn’t need God. Science would cure all disease and solve all problems in the world. Through the exercise of human love mankind would be reconciled to each other and war, hatred and greed would cease.
Our slogans stated our idealistic outlook – “Make love not war”, “flower power”, etc. Today as we look around us we see that not only have we not been able to solve the world’s problems, but they have become even worse. We have only to consider the nature of urban warfare, terrorism, continuing poverty, environmental damage, global warming, the rise of the super-bugs - and I could go on and on. Our trust in the goodness of mankind and in the power of science has proven to be misplaced.
The plain fact is that only God can bring salvation to the world – and the means has been provided through Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus that we are to place our faith, and in God we can trust.
Some of us worry about whether we have sufficient faith. What is important isn’t the size of faith so much; but rather, where the faith is being placed. Hudson Taylor the well known missionary to the Chinese once said, ‘it is not a great faith we need, but faith in a great God.’
And so, as we look back at the great men and women of faith we can be encouraged to persevere and complete the race. No matter what the circumstances we are encouraged to fix our eyes upon Jesus and remain faithful knowing that he is trustworthy. Amen.