Faith endures until the promise has been fully fulfilled.
“39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. 12:1 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. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood…7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons…10b God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” (Hebrews 11:39-12:13).
To understand the significance of what the writer to the Hebrews says at the end of chapter 11 we have to read part of Hebrews 12. This is what the “therefore” in Hebrews 12:1 indicates—people of faith who have completed their journey give testimony about today’s journey of faith being taken by God’s people.
But before we go forward we must go back. Hebrews 11:38, referring to those saints mentioned earlier, especially those who had suffered so much on account of their faith, and to those who had not seen the ultimate fulfilment of the covenant promises of God, says “…the world was not worthy of them.”
In his commentary, Matthew Henry has this to say about this phrase: “The world considers that the righteous are not worthy to live in the world, and God declares the world is not worthy of them. Though the righteous and the worldlings widely differ in their judgment, they agree in this, it is not fit that good men should have their rest in this world. Therefore God receives them out of it.” From the perspective of the enemies of the Gospel, getting rid of those who follow Christ is ridding themselves of scum, those who are “thorns in the flesh” of a supposedly more “evolved” society. And those who are Christ-followers live in anticipation of receiving something much better that what this world has to offer. And this life lived in anticipation is something we share with those who lived by faith in the past.
In Hebrews 11:39, 40, the writer says that “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” But what is this “better” that only the saints of the Old Testament and those of us on the other side of the cross share?
In his letter to believers scattered throughout the ancient world because of persecution, Peter encourages these Christians to think beyond their circumstances, to remember the goal of their faith, and to live accordingly.
“Praise be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of much greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that has come to you, searched intently and with the greatest of care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the Gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
There is a sense in which the Old Testament saints are in a holding pattern because they had only been able to anticipate what would happen on the cross. Since it hadn’t happened yet, its effects could not applied, only anticipated. At the cross they too could be declared justified based on their faith long after they had lived out that faith just, just as we, on this side of the cross, are declared justified based on our faith and now live out that faith. But is there not a sense for us on this side of Calvary, that we too are in holding pattern waiting for something to be made complete? The writer to the Hebrews refers to us and to them as being made “perfect” together.
In this particular verse in Hebrews that word “perfect” means:
I. to make perfect, complete
o to carry through completely, to accomplish, finish, bring to an end
II. to complete (perfect)
o add what is yet wanting in order to render a thing full
o to be found perfect
III. to bring to the end (goal) proposed
IV. to accomplish
o bring to a close or fulfilment by event
o of the prophecies of the scriptures
What is it that both Old and New Testament saints are waiting for? Remembering that “therefore” which begins Hebrews 12, we understand that what the author is about to say is connected to what he has just said. So we should read the passage as a whole:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 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, 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.”
All those mentioned in Hebrews 11 are “commended through their faith” (even though sometimes we have had a hard time finding that faith). All of those mentioned “did not receive what was promised.” As in the case of those described in Hebrews 11, though we have faith, we have not received what was promised. There is something better to come that involves being “made perfect.” Paul, writing from prison to the believers in Philippi, said, “…conduct yourselves in a manner worthy off the gospel of Christ…For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”
Salvation was theirs, and ours, but there is a process connected to that salvation that has to be lived out and acted upon until we all reach the final destination in our pilgrimage—heaven. As part of that process, with the people of faith who have gone before as examples for us, we are to put sin aside and persevere in that faith, looking to the ultimate example, Jesus, who is the perfecter of that faith.
And what did Jesus’ experience foretell for us—both Old Testament and New Testament saints? Suffering here, glory there. The perfect is heaven where the process of sanctification, our complete conformity to the image of Christ, the end result of our salvation, will be completed. But the end of the journey also means the return to Eden, to life the way it was before sin entered, to that new earth which will be like what Eden was before the fall.
Peter’s message to believers of his day, suffering through persecution, was to hold on to their faith even though they might go through difficult times because of it. Their perseverance might result in their deaths, but if they would look beyond this world which was not worthy of them, they would know joy even in the midst of difficult times because of the excitement generated because of the knowledge of what was waiting for them.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
We might think that the ultimate answer to our faith is a here-and-now answer. But we should be looking beyond the here-and-now toward “Mount Zion,” “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” “the things that cannot be shaken,” “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
All these saints of old give testimony (are “witnesses” of) that faith pays off. And because we have that testimony we know what we need to do—persevere in that faith.
Much of this glory is yet to be, and awaits the second coming of Christ. Even those who are in glory now have not yet seen the fulfilment of the promises, the culmination, the perfection of all things, the return to Eden before the fall. But knowing that it is coming, spurs us on to persevere in that faith of which the Old Testament saints are witnesses, and that Jesus perfected on the cross, and will perfect in us.
Perseverance is necessary when it comes to a journey, or “race” of faith.
Paul’s perspective on running the race of faith is outlined in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will be disqualified for the prize.”
This is followed by a warning from the example of Israel, people who so often did not persevere!
The discipline of faith exercised under pressure, spoken of in Hebrews 11 correlates to the training of 1 Corinthians 9. God keeps us on track through sending the events in our lives that grow us toward modeling Jesus, and challenge our faith, strengthening us so that perseverance becomes less and less like foreign to us and more and more a natural lifestyle.
It is vital to keep our eyes focused on the “prize”, on the goal of the pilgrimage. It is too easy to be distracted. And if we are distracted, it will be easy to fall into the category of one who runs “aimlessly” or one who “beats the air.” We won’t be so inclined to stay on course if we forget what the point of the journey is.
According to Hebrews 12:2-3 our model of persistent faith is Christ Himself.
The Zondervan Study Bible notes that “reflecting on Jesus’ example shows the value of endurance. The faithful are not exempt from opposition in this world (John 15:18-20; Acts 14:22; 1 Peter 2:21), but faithful suffering is the pathway to glory and blessing…Weakness and discouragement in our adversities (v. 4) is what we must guard against (6:11-12; Gal 6:9; Rev 2:3.”
The writer to the Hebrews considers that the running of this race of faith is like discipline, which he describes in Hebrews 12:4-11.
There is the discipline that we experience from our earthly fathers—not always perfectly applied, but for the most part meant to keep us “on the straight and narrow” and to benefit us. Only fathers apply discipline to their own offspring. God’s discipline is perfect and proves that we are His offspring, His children.
God’s discipline in our lives should be an encouragement to us.
“…he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Made in His image at the beginning, before the fall, we are now being remade into that image through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The potter molds the clay—if the clay could speak it would probably say “ouch” many times during the process of being formed, especially when placed in the fire! But it doesn’t demand or complain or walk away. It simply is, allowing the potter to do what he must to accomplish his design for that piece of clay.
Both discipline as training and discipline as punishment play a part in a successful journey of faith. We have seen both in many of the examples of faith we have looked at from the list in Hebrews 11.
Training hardens muscles, removes useless fat, makes it possible for us to go the distance. Punishment or course correction is equally necessary because it does us little good to be all hardened up to go the distance and to be running in the wrong lane!
According to Hebrews 12:10, 11, the end product of discipline is righteousness—the return to the image in which we were first created—God’s image.
The idea of this perseverance as we journey toward our ultimate destination, as we saw in Hebrews 12:1, is strengthen by other phrases that appear in verses 1, 4, 7, 12, 13.
“… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…”
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood…”
“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet.”
A disciplined faith is sometimes hard to find. The Scriptures sometimes focus more heavily on the negatives than they do on the positives. But the positive examples are there and are always direct us toward obedience even when the choice to obey is a challenging one to make.
The thought (and the reality) of the challenges of a journey of faith, and the perseverance required to see the journey through to the end, can be difficult. The quote in Hebrews 12:12,
“Make level paths for your feet” is taken from Isaiah 35 and describes in poetic terms the end result of a persevering faith.
“ The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Jesus addressed the challenges of a race of faith when He said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” We can liken the race of faith as a yoke, as a burden, as a challenge fraught with difficulties. A yoke seems a heavy thing, but it is not a burden whose weight we carry when it is the yoke of trust and obedience placed on us by Jesus.
Bible commentator Barnes has said it as well as anyone can say it:
“There is no part of the New Testament of more value than this chapter; none which deserves to be more patiently studied, or which may be more frequently applied to the circumstances of Christians. These invaluable records are adapted to sustain us in times of trial, temptation, and persecution; to show us what faith has done in days that are past, and what it may do still in similar circumstances. Nothing can better show the value and the power of faith, or of true religion, than the records in this chapter. It has done what nothing else could do. It has enabled people to endure what nothing else would enable them to bear, and it has shown its power in inducing them to give up, at the command of God, what the human heart holds most dear. And among the lessons which we may derive from the study of this portion of divine truth, let us learn from the example of Abel to continue to offer to God the sacrifice of true piety which he requires, though we may be taunted or opposed by our nearest kindred; from that of Enoch to walk with God, though surrounded by a wicked world, and to look to the blessed translation to heaven which awaits all the righteous; from that of Noah to comply with all the directions of God, and to make all needful preparations for the future events which he has predicted, in which we are to be interested - as death, judgment, and eternity - though the events may seem to be remote, and though there may be no visible indications of their coming, and though the world may deride our faith and our fears; from that of Abraham to leave country, and home, and kindred, if God calls us to, and to go just where he commands, through deserts and wilds, and among strange people, and like him also to be ready to give up the dearest objects of our earthly affection, even when attended with all that can try or torture our feelings of affection - feeling that God who gave has a right to require their removal in his own way, and that however much we may fix our hopes on a dear child, he can fulfil all his purposes and promises to us though such a child should be removed by death; from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to regard ourselves as strangers and pilgrims on earth, having here no permanent home. and seeking a better country; from that of Moses to be willing to leave all the pomp and splendour of the world, all our brilliant prospects and hopes, and to welcome poverty, reproach, and suffering, that we may identify ourselves with the people of God; by the remembrance of the host of worthies who met danger, and encountered mighty foes, and vanquished them, let us learn to go forth in our spiritual conflicts against the enemies of our souls and of the church, assured of victory; and from the example of those who were driven from the abodes of human beings, and exposed to the storms of persecution, let us learn to bear every trial, and to be ready at any moment to lay down our lives in the cause of truth and of God. Of all those holy men who made these sacrifices, which of them ever regretted it, when he came calmly to look over his life, and to review it on the borders of the eternal world?
None. Not one of them ever expressed regret that he had given up the world; or that he had obeyed the Lord too early, too faithfully, or too long. Not Abraham who left his country and kindred; not Moses who abandoned his brilliant prospects in Egypt; not Noah who subjected himself to ridicule and scorn for an hundred and twenty years; and not one of those who were exposed to lions, to fire, to the edge of the sword, or who were driven away from society as outcasts to wander in pathless deserts or to take up their abodes in caverns, ever regretted the course which they had chosen. And who of them all now regrets it? Who, of these worthies, now looks from heaven and feels that he suffered one privation too much, or that he has not had an ample recompense for all the ills he experienced in the cause of religion? So we shall feel when from the bed of death we look over the present life, and look out on eternity.
Whatever our religion may have cost us, we shall not feel that we began to serve God too early, or served him too faithfully. Whatever pleasure, gain, or splendid prospects we gave up in order to become Christians, we shall feel that it was the way of wisdom, and shall rejoice that we were able to do it. Whatever sacrifices, trials, persecution, and pain, we may meet with, we shall feel that there has been more than a compensation in the consolations of religion, and in the hope of heaven, and that by every sacrifice we have been the gainers. When we reach heaven, we shall see that we have not endured one pain too much, and that through whatever trials we may have passed, the result is worth all which it has cost. Strengthened then in our trials by the remembrance of what faith has done in times that are past; recalling the example of those who through faith and patience have inherited the promises, let us go cheerfully on our way. Soon the journey of trials will be ended, and soon what are now objects of faith will become objects of fruition, and in their enjoyment, how trifling and brief will seem all the sorrows of our pilgrimage below!”
Fixing our eyes on Jesus is critical. We have seen that every one of these people of faith, to varying degrees, had this treasure of faith in a clay pot. Some of these “pots” were more scarred and broken than others, but they were all scarred. If we fix our eyes on them—though they be examples to us and provide lessons for us to learn—they are not where our focus needs to be if we want to keep our eyes on the prize and persevere in the journey of faith. It is Jesus who is the “author and perfecter” of that faith.
Recently a friend posted an article on FACEBOOK on George Whitfield. Whitfield was one of the great preachers and evangelists of a past century, contemporary of the Wesley brothers. In the article the author questioned Whitfield’s salvation, though he wouldn’t come right out and say what he thought—he simply planted the seed of doubt. The reason? Whitfield owned slaves. The opinions of several people were shared on the subject but my mind immediately when back to the saints of Hebrews 11—cracked pots containing the treasure of grace, of Jesus. All His saints are “cracked pots” in one way or another. And I was reminded that I need to look to Jesus, not to Abraham, or Moses, or Samson, or Gideon, or Elijah, but to Jesus. Because His is the only one who doesn’t hold the treasure in a scarred clay pot, but IS the treasure.
And so we return to the beginning.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with every-increasingly glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Jesus. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is seen is eternal.”
The treasure of Jesus in jars of clay. They are often cracked, sometimes broken and then patched together again. But they still have the treasure that we share to the glory of God.
A friend shared an illustration she once heard. I do not know who the original source was, but it beautifully pictures what people of faith, cracked pots that they might be, are in the world. I use a woman in the story simply because traditionally it would have been a woman who went for water. The picture is this:
There once was a woman who went to the river for water. It was a long journey and her clay water jar was cracked. She filled the jar and then began the long trip back to her home. As she went the water leaked out of her jar. Once she arrived at her destination she saw that there was very little water left in her water jar. But as she looked back along the path by which she had come she realized that, as far as her eyes could see, beautiful flowers had sprung up in every place that those drops of water had fallen.
Yes, our jars may be cracked. They may have been broken and then patched together again. But as much as the jar is important, the treasure is of much more value. It is the treasure of Jesus flowing out of those jars that changes the world.
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. Cracked pots. Still, God pours Himself into them despite the cracks, and perhaps because of them. What does it mean to you to possess the treasure of Jesus in your “jar of clay”?
2. What distractions do you need to deal with in trying to “fix your eyes on Jesus” as you take your journey of faith? Take a moment to lay those distractions at the feet of Jesus in prayer.
3. How have the examples of faith (or even the lack of it) from Hebrews 11 been an encouragement to you?
4. In what areas do you need to persevere in faith a little more? Once again, take these concerns and lay them at the feet of Jesus in prayer.
5. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 1 Corinthians 4:9
 1 Peter1:3-16
 Philippians 1:27, 29; 2:12,13
 1 Peter 1:8-12
 Hebrews 12:18ff
 Matthew 11:28-30
 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:18