Though many find Hebrews chapter eleven to be a source of great encouragement, personally, I enjoy chapter twelve even more. It starts with this encouragement that we have an enormous cloud of people who’ve gone ahead of us in the faith and a directive: therefore, endure as they did. This chapter is all about endurance from beginning to end. As much as I enjoy the accounts of our forefathers, putting my hand to the plow is a forward-facing effort. Jesus did just that. He put his hand to the plow and endured.
In that spirit, let’s move ahead with this passage because we have lots of ground to cover.
1 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, 2 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.
– Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)
If you’ve been following along, you know that this great cloud of witnesses is the men and women mentioned in chapter eleven. I’ve heard it taught by others that this cloud includes all believers who have gone before us. That might be true, and I can’t think of a reason that it wouldn’t be true, but the author was not angling for them. He was aiming for the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. Why? Because the ones he sought to reach in this teaching were believing Jews who were tempted to return to the Old Covenant. And for our sake, I believe those are the ones we should also consider. The very reason they are essential to his argument is because they believed with faith yet never saw the fulfillment.
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,
– Hebrews 11:39 (ESV)
This cloud is these people: those who were commended for their faith without seeing its fulfillment. They testify to us with a durable faith undeterred by the long wait. I titled this article Durable Faith because of them. Their faith took a beating and kept on ticking. Their faith was tested and kept on passing. It’s not that they never felt like giving up or taking shortcuts or that they never felt abandoned. Read the Psalms, and you’ll find all of those feelings. Read Abraham’s account, and you’ll see that he and Sarah tried a shortcut or two. None of them were perfect. Yet, they all endured to the end, believing in a promise that wasn’t fulfilled in their days.
Now, we, who have seen the promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, can be encouraged by their faith. Those who endured without seeing still serve to strengthen those of us who have seen and need endurance. We need a durable faith like theirs because we also await fulfillment: the promise of His return. We have kindred hopes in that regard. They endured, so we, too, may endure to see the fulfillment of our shared faith.
Lay Aside Every Weight and Clingy Sin
Durable faith casts aside the things that weigh us down in our endurance. There’s a genuine sense in which the people who don’t endure fail to do this. These weights aren’t necessarily sinful things. Some things in life aren’t sinful, yet they weigh us down. Like what? I can only give you examples from my life because it’s somewhat subjective.
I have interests that bring me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction. I love woodworking, basketball, and beekeeping. I find great pleasure in all three. I currently do some woodworking as an outlet, but I must constantly curb my enthusiasm for it. I love the game of basketball. I like playing it, and I’ve often considered pursuing coaching it at some level as a seasonal side hustle, but 1) I don’t recover like I used to, so playing it all the time ends up costing me downtime with other things, and 2) coaching would consume far too much of my time to minister well during basketball seasons. Beekeeping is the same. I used to do it, but doing it well demanded more time than I could give.
Time from what? Don’t people always fill their lives with side hustles, work, family, and recreation? Yes, they do, but we all have good works that the Father has prepared for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10), so though there are good that may interest us, they also can serve as weights that hinder us from running the race we’re called to run.
I believe there’s a relationship between the weights and the sins that cling so closely. The sins that cling so closely often find significant footholds in the lives of those of us who overcommit. When we leave no space for cultivating our spiritual lives, sin clings more easily to the gaping, vulnerable places that develop from a lack of growth. The durability of our faith is significantly affected by every weight and the clingy sins that accompany them, which we refuse to cast off.
The great cloud of witnesses stands as examples of men and women who cast off the extra weights and ran with endurance.
Look to Jesus
Along with the great cloud, we have Jesus, the one they anticipated but never saw. We have seen Him. Take note of His endurance and what motivated Him to stay the course.
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.
What was that joy? It caused him to endure all of his persecutions, beatings, and eventual shameful and gruesome death on the cross. What was this joy? It had to be so desirable for Him that He would endure such suffering. What was it? It is a two-fold joy. The first half would be returning to the glory that He has shared with the Father for eternity.
5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
– John 17:5 (ESV)
You’d think that would be enough, but there’s more. We read about the other half of it way back in chapter two.
11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
– Hebrews 2:11-12 (ESV, emphasis added)
The other half of that joy was presenting all those He saves to the Father as His brothers. He longs to bring all His adopted siblings into the Father’s presence and say, “Abba, our family is here!”
Likewise, we look forward to that same joy. The joy of uniting with Jesus, our elder brother, the Father, the Spirit, and the whole family of God that Jesus ransomed. We endure by looking to Him at the Father’s right hand, just as, in a sense, He endured by looking forward to us and the Father. In doing this, we will endure with durable faith.
But why? Why does faith need durability? The following several verses explain.
He Disciplines Us
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 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.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
– Hebrews 12:3-6 (ESV)
What is God’s discipline? It deserves a discussion because the way the author used the concept of discipline and what comes to mind isn’t entirely congruent. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I hear the word discipline, my mind locks in on two primary things. First is punishment for wrongdoing, particularly with children. The second is routines and habits. When a person seems disciplined, I almost always think of their faithfulness to a daily regimen. But the author has something bigger in mind that encapsulates both of these, but much more.
The Greek word that the ESV translated as discipline is paideia, which means tutorage, education, or training. By implication, it can be linked with either of the meanings I mentioned earlier, but the word itself has a broader definition. The author has something more than punishment or regimen in mind. He has in mind something more along the lines of training. The discipline of the LORD, then, is the training that He chooses for us to endure for our good and His glory. How does He train us? He trains us through suffering, which is why the author reminds us of Christ’s sufferings and how we haven’t resisted to the point of shedding our blood. That’s not to say that no one ever dies for their faith, but this letter was written to the living who still needed to endure well.
7 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? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 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? 10 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. 11 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.
– Hebrews 12:7-11 (ESV)
If the Father trained His Son, Jesus Christ, through suffering, we adopted sons will receive the same training. We will endure suffering as our training so that we might share in His holiness. Also, notice that you are not a legitimate son if you aren’t being trained/disciplined. How is this relevant to the author’s listeners/readers?
In all probability, these Jewish believers were disillusioned with the amount of suffering that came with following Jesus. The Old Covenant included promises of blessing for obedience. (See Deuteronomy 28). Jesus also promised blessings (Matthew 5:1-12), but those blessings were primarily spiritual. I’m offering you an educated guess because the reason for their weariness is never spelled out clearly, but I think this is a likely scenario. In chapter ten, the author listed several of their sufferings, including the plundering of their property (Hebrews 10:32-34). It all seemed so contrary to the promised blessings for obedience given to Israel at Sinai. At least before they believed in Jesus, they didn’t experience these fiery trials, or so their thinking may have gone.
The author was trying to tell them their suffering meant they were on the right track! If you’re being trained by suffering for the name of Christ, then you are a legitimate, adopted son of the Most High! He is making your faith durable! And this training causes us to share in Christ’s holiness! By it, we become holy as He is holy. The discipline we endure is not punishment by a capricious, unpredictable God but, instead, a loving Father’s training. He trains us so we’ll be more like Him. He desires that His ways will be our ways, His thoughts, our thoughts, His responses, our responses. That only comes by training – by His discipline.
This isn’t complicated, but since all discipline is unpleasant at the moment, the knee-jerk reaction is to quit. So there’s good news and uncomfortable news. The good news is that the Father is patient and knew precisely what He was getting when He adopted you. You can’t surprise Him with your reluctance. The uncomfortable news is that the Father is patient and will continue to put you through the same caliber of trials until you finally learn.
How do we know that His discipline is bearing fruit? Later, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. You know his training is working when you later discover you’re not as quick to anger as you once were. You’re not as impatient. You’re far less given to worry. And the weights and clingy sins mentioned earlier don’t seem as heavy or clingy as they once were. In other words, your faith is becoming durable.
Four Preparations for God’s Discipline
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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.
– Hebrews 12:12-17 (ESV)
Because the LORD’s discipline is inevitable, the author detailed four things that prepare us.
- Strengthen what isn’t lame.
- Strive for peace and holiness.
- Don’t become bitter.
- Don’t be like Esau.
Strengthen What Isn’t Lame
While preparing for this, when I came to verses twelve and thirteen, my heart exploded with a theme, and I shared it on Facebook, so I’m linking that post here rather than rewriting the whole thing.
I hope that made sense. Let’s keep moving.
Strive for Peace and Holiness
There’s an interesting thing about the word strive in the Greek. The definition of the Greek word means to pursue (literally or figuratively); by implication, to persecute, ensue, follow; to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away, to run swiftly in order to catch.
That means we should strive for peace and holiness with the same fervency as a persecutor or, perhaps a more contemporary example, a bounty hunter. Strive for peace with everyone. It echoes Romans 12:18, where we should seek peace with everyone as much as it depends upon us. That includes our enemies (Matthew 5:25)! So, not only do we humble ourselves and invite other brothers into our suffering to hold up our weak limbs so that what is lame can heal, but we seek peace with everyone with bounty hunter intensity.
Along with peace, we’re also to strive for holiness. Pursue holiness like a bounty hunter. That lands differently than what I’ve heard for much of my life. Just do your best to live a holy life, and remember that we’re all sinners saved by grace, so get out of sorts if you fail. Forgive me for leaning too hard on the bounty hunter analogy; I don’t see a bounty hunter telling his apprentice something like that when there’s so much at stake! Hey man, there’s a lot of money at stake, but don’t beat yourself up if you mess up. Just grab a latte, go do some reflection on a bench in the park, and try harder next time.
Ok, enough bounty hunters. I hope you understand. At the risk of sounding legalistic, striving for holiness is a different attitude than just doing my best and hoping it works out. Having that lackadaisical attitude betrays the seriousness of the discipline the LORD puts us through. HE HAS GOOD WORKS THAT HE PREPARED BEFOREHAND FOR US TO WALK IN, AND THIS DISCIPLINE PREPARES US TO DO THEM! If I were preaching this, I’d shout that sentence, so I put it in bold and all caps.
It’s time to pursue peace and holiness like… you guessed it, a bounty hunter.
Don’t Become Bitter
This has a direct link to whatever is lame in us. How? Our hurts and wounds will turn us to bitterness if we refuse to strengthen what isn’t lame and heal. Bitterness is often the callousness that grows over the wound. It’s ugly, unfeeling, and insensitive to everything around it. This is all too common in the Body of Christ. And notice that the bitterness is radioactive because it defiles many. If you’ve become bitter, you are spiritually radioactive, and you’re hurting everyone else in your life.
The funny thing about radiation is that it’s invisible. Your bitterness may be well hidden and covered with all sorts of things to disguise it, including religious activity. The symptoms of radiation sickness begin shortly after exposure, not at the moment. Similarly, people close to you might not even realize that you’re poisoning them until their symptoms start to emerge.
Sadly, many bitter people don’t recognize the problem as their bitterness but blame something or someone on the outside. Bitter people often end up alone because once people realize that they’re being made sick, they leave. Bitterness is always the calloused fruit of disjointed, lame areas of our lives that we refuse to let Jesus heal. The more calloused that part of your life becomes the more painful the healing.
Don’t Be Like Esau
Esau is the author’s case study for bitterness. I must highlight that the author made statements about Esau – specifically his sexual immorality – that don’t have direct parallels in the Old Testament. But I believe we can draw a parallel by implication. But first, why was Esau bitter?
From a young age, Esau probably knew that the LORD chose his brother Jacob for the blessing even though he was second-born. The pattern of Esau’s life indicates this created bitterness in his heart.
- He had no regard for his birthright since he sold it for a single meal.
- The reference to his sexual immorality is likely tied to his multiple Hittite wives.
- The sons would take wives from within the family, but Esau took multiple foreign women. The Bible even says that his wives made life bitter for his parents (Genesis 26:34-35). This seems like contemptuous and bitter behavior.
Esau was bitter his entire life, even before Jacob stole his blessing. And then, in verse seventeen, it’s clear that he had no desire to repent. He never sought repentance; instead, he only sought a blessing, even tearfully. He badly wanted a blessing, but he wanted that blessing apart from repentance. Thus, he was rejected. You can’t recognize your mistake but not repent and expect that you’ll still receive a blessing.
That’s what bitterness does. It removes the sensitivity required to feel godly sorrow for sins you committed. If you can’t feel conviction, you can’t repent, even if you intellectually know what you did was wrong. Repentance isn’t merely an intellectual exercise. Godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10) – a feeling – drives us to genuine repentance. Esau didn’t have that. Don’t be like Esau and coddle your bitterness for so long that you won’t repent even when you realize you’re wrong.
That which is lame needs to be healed so that you can endure the discipline of the Father that prepares us for the good works He wants us to accomplish. Do you see how it all connects?
Durable faith – the kind of faith the great cloud of witnesses had – comes by endurance. That endurance is built through the discipline of the Father. Jesus experienced that discipline, so we should expect no less. That discipline is taught through trials and suffering. At times, along the way, we get wounded – which itself is a trial to endure. Those wounds need to heal by strengthening what isn’t lame. We strive for this. We pursue peace and holiness with fervency. And if we don’t, bitterness awaits, and it defiles you and the people around you. And once bitterness bears its calloused fruit, those things that need healing may never heal because we increasingly lose sensitivity to our need for repentance.