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A Study in the Book of Hebrews: The Centrality of Jesus

Theology

by Pilgrim Benham

A Study in the Book of Hebrews: The Centrality of Jesus

We aren't sure exactly who wrote the book of Hebrews. Some say it was Paul the apostle, but that is doubtful. Others say Barnabas—or because of the writing style, perhaps it was Luke or even Apollos—but we don't know for sure. The letter reads more like a sermon—a sermon that was written and shared among believers in the first century and now throughout eternity.

The theme of Hebrews is simply the idea that Jesus is better.

You begin to read through looking for that theme, and you find that Jesus is better than the angels; Jesus is better than men; He's better than Moses. Jesus' rest is better than a Sabbath day's rest. Jesus is better than the high priest. Jesus' new covenant is better than the old. Jesus' sacrifice is better than the blood of bulls and goats. Then we get to chapter 11, and we see that faith in Christ is better than the temporal things of this world. All throughout the letter of Hebrews (or the sermon of Hebrews), we get this reminder that Jesus is utterly better than anything in creation or in the ceremonial law.

The Hebrews "sermon" begins and ends without stating who wrote it, or exactly to whom it was written. But when we get to chapter 12, we get a glimpse of why this letter was written. The writing style begins to change from trying to argue and convince that Jesus is better, to exhorting the readers to not give up. In chapter 12, Hebrews transforms from an apologetic argument to a motivational appeal. And what is at the centerpiece of this appeal? The one and the same argument that has been at the center of the rest of the letter: Jesus.

What were the listeners tempted to give up? Why did they need all of these proofs that Jesus was better than Judaism? Because they were a fledgling band of Jewish Christians who were wavering in their faith. They were looking at the sacrifices, the feasts, the worship in the temple, the patriarchs and the benefits of their Jewish heritage, and as they were beginning to face difficulty, there was a temptation to go back or to get slowed down, to get tripped up in the simple task of following Jesus.

So when we get to chapter 12, we are given a few reasons why we shouldn't ever give up or give in. It may not be Judaism that is calling out to you as you are reading this, but certainly something. Whether you are aware of it or not, the land mines are out there—the trip wires have been laid to cause your feet to stumble or to take you out of the race. So how do we stay the course? 

The answer is more simple—and profound—than you’d imagine.

Hebrews 12:1 says: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

Notice the word "therefore" in verse 1. The writer says "since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses." The word therefore bridges the chapter divide that was added much later in church history. If we go backward and rewind to chapter 11, we read about an impressive list of Bible characters, all placing their faith in God and yet not fully receiving what they were hoping for.

We read about everyone from Abel to Abraham, from Moses to Rahab. Gideon's there, barely. Barak made it, even if you didn't vote for him. Samson, kind of the Crossfit Champion of the Bible—we doubted him—but he made it. Jephthah's there. I know–you were crossing your fingers and said in your heart, "But what about Jephthah?" David, Samuel, the prophets and the writer says this is Hebrews 11:33-38: Who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Intentionally, the writer of Hebrews says in chapter 12 that since we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, we should begin to run with perseverance. If we don't understand this correctly, it can seem intimidating. The word “cloud” here is a mass of living beings. It is a huge cloud of those who are witnesses to faith in the Lord. 

But when we hear that there are witnesses, we may have the wrong idea in mind.

I grew up with this fear that the cloud of witnesses are all watching us from heaven and either sort of cheering us on or creepily watching and booing us. 

I picture myself trying to resist temptation. And there's David kind of clapping and hollering, and then suddenly I'm starting to give in to the temptation; and I stop and just look up. There's my great grandma kind of yelling out, "BOOO YOU’RE THE WORST!!" There’s the Apostle Paul face-palming, and Peter is pointing and laughing; while Adam and Eve are just shaking their heads in disgust. Is the great cloud of witnesses watching me? If they do, they probably are having a hard time looking because I'm awful.

But that isn't the idea—even remotely. The idea here is that they bear witness to faith. They have gone before us on this exact path, and their lives declare a loud testimony that can't be ignored. They are "witnesses." The word for witness is the Greek word martus, where we obtain the word "martyr" from. It means one who testifies, or can testify, to what he has seen or heard. The early church testified to the resurrection of Jesus Christ; they were witnesses, even unto their deaths. They aren't as much spectators of our race as they are ones who have run before us and can testify that faith is worth it.

They aren't as much watching as they are telling, bearing witness. Can you hear their united chorus, from Abraham to the prophets, calling out to us: "DON'T QUIT! KEEP RUNNING! STAY THE COURSE! IT IS WORTH IT! FINISH WELL!” John Calvin said that we are so surrounded by this dense throng, that wherever we turn our eyes, many examples of faith immediately meet us.

Hughes remarks: The scene is a great coliseum. The occasion is a footrace, a distance event. The contestants include the author and the members of his flock and, by mutual faith, us. The cloud of witnesses that fills the stadium are the great spiritual athletes of the past, Hall of Faith members - every one a Gold Medal winner. They are not live witnesses of the event, but "witnesses" by the fact that their past lives bear witness to monumental, persevering faith that, like Abel's faith, "still speaks, even though he is dead".

We are running a race, and we need to run to win or at least finish the race! So because of this great throng of people who have gone before, the writer of Hebrews says "therefore do three things:" throw off, run and look.

1. Throw Off

The word for "throw off" is a Greek word that means to place aside, to put aside out of the ordinary way. It is the same word used in Acts 7 when those who stoned Stephen laid their robes—placed them aside—at the feet of Saul. When Herod had John the Baptist arrested, he put him aside. The runners in the Grecian games that this is referring to actually did not wear much clothing. Can you imagine someone wearing a heavy trench coat that would weigh them down or a scarf or a tunic that suddenly gets caught in a tree branch? Clothing itself would hinder and hamper the runner. This verse tells us to put aside two things in our race: what entraps you (sin) and what entangles you (the sin). Like wearing a trench coat in a 5k, things like sensuality, jealousy, dishonesty, covetousness, criticism, laziness, hatred, lust or pride will weigh on us and slow us down. The New Testament describes a list of things we should put off (though this is not exhaustive): the deeds of darkness, our old self, falsehood, anger, malice, slander, abusive speech, filthiness, guile and hypocrisy. All of these things weigh us down, or entrap us. But secondly, we are to lay aside “the sin,” singular. There are sins—plural—that always have the ability to slow us down. But one sin in particular can trip us up. And it is the sin of unbelief. It easily entangles us. So we are to place it aside. Take our pride, our lust, our anger and our unbelief, and lay them aside like an outer coat. Put them away!

A.W. Pink said, “The racer must be as lightly clad as possible if he is to run swiftly: all that would cumber and impede him must be relinquished. Undue concern over temporal affairs, inordinate affection for the things of this life, the intemperate use of any material blessings, undue familiarity with the ungodly, are 'weights' which prevent progress in godliness. A bag of gold would be as great a handicap to a runner as a bag of lead!”

2. Run

Paul asked a rhetorical question in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

We are not to run aimlessly. We aren't to lose heart and quit. We are to run the race. The word "race" is the Greek word agon, where we obtain our word "agony" from. The idea is conflict, difficulty, struggle. Paul uses this word constantly in his writing. But we are to run with two emphases, which greatly encourage me: first, we must run with perseverance and secondly, we must run the race marked out for us.

Perseverance is the Greek word hupomone. Barclay points out that this word, “Does not mean the patience which sits down and accepts things but the patience which masters them...It is a determination, unhurrying and yet undelaying, which goes steadily on and refuses to be deflected.”                       We have to be willing to run to the very end. Our race will be agonizing. But being passive won't win you the race. Husbands and wives need to persevere in their marriage. Young people need to persevere in their faith. Grandparents need to persevere in their prayers. We need to run our race with endurance. This isn't a sprint! It is a marathon!

We must run with perseverance, but we must also run our own race. Runners use a phrase known as their “Personal Best.” The idea is that you have clocked the fastest time you’ve ever recorded for that distance. You don’t run with someone else’s time chip. You run your own race. You aren’t running your father’s race. You aren’t running your children’s race. You aren’t running another pastor’s race. Run your own race! But run it with endurance. It isn't about who finished the race FIRST...it is simply about finishing the race!!

3. Look to Jesus

Hebrews 12:2-3 says, "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

This is having vertical vision in our horizontal race. We "fix our eyes" on Jesus. The word here means to look away from all else and to look steadfastly, intently toward a distant object. The idea is to direct one’s attention without distraction. We are only effective in the race to the degree that we keep our eyes on the right object: the Lord Jesus, not ourselves! Spurgeon said, “As the wife of the Persian nobleman said, when her husband asked her what she thought of Darius, that she had not looked at him, she had no eyes for any man but her husband, so the Christian has no eyes for any but Christ,- ‘looking unto Jesus,’-keeping his eye always upon him, and so running the Christian race.”

Peter didn’t have the ability to walk on water because he practiced—but because his eyes were on Jesus. Once he took his eyes off Jesus, he not only noticed wind and waves, but he began to sink. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is the object of our faith, but He is also our EXAMPLE. He began it; authored it, but He also will help us complete it. Jesus endured the cross. Jesus scorned the shame. He endured opposition from sinful men, and He sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus sat down AFTER He endured. Too many Christians want to take a seat when they need to take a stand.

Corrie Ten Boom said: Look around and be distressed. Look inside and be depressed. Look at Jesus and be at rest.

And she said that after enduring a Nazi concentration camp.

When you look backward, you see Jesus on the cross. When you look upward, you see Jesus at the right hand of God, interceding for you. When you look forward, you will see Jesus coming again for His Bride.

Annie Johnson Flint, who lost both of her parents as a young girl, was overcome with arthritis and confined to a wheelchair most of her adult life. Even with crippling and painful condition, she still wrote many hymns, poems and letters. One of those hymns is called "I See Jesus:"

I See Jesus I don't look back: God knows the fruitless efforts, The wasted hours the sinning, the regrets; I leave them all with Him Who blots the record, And mercifully forgives, and then forgets

I don't look forward, God sees all the future, The road that, short or long, will lead me home, And He will face with me its every trial, And bear for me the burdens that may come.

I don't look round me: then would fears assail me, So wild the tumult of earth's restless seas; So dark the world, so filled with woe and evil, So vain the hope of comfort or of ease.

I don't look in; for then am I most wretched; Myself has naught on which to stay my trust; Nothing I see save failures and short-comings, And weak endeavors crumbling into dust.

But I look up -- into the face of Jesus, For there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled. And there is joy, and love, and light for darkness, And perfect peace, and every hope fulfilled.

As the cloud of witnesses endlessly proclaim a vibrant testimony about Jesus, may we keep our eyes on Him alone until the race is run and the battle is won.