Sunday, January 16, 2011

We Are Being Watched

We are being watched
By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist Seaman Apprentice Marc Rockwell-Pate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Text: Hebrews 12:1-2
"Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

Bible Reading: 2 Timothy 2:1-10
"You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things. Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" 

The Bible presents the Christian life under a wide range of figures, all of them suggestive and descriptive of the believer’s experience. He is compared to a child, a sheep, a house, a temple, a farm, a pilgrim, a soldier, a bride, members of a body, and many other things. One of the most colourful is that of an athlete, running in a race to obtain the prize or trophy. Such is the figure with which Hebrews 12 opens. “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”(NKJV)

The figure is taken from a race track in a great arena, with a multitude of rooters and fans in the seats of the giant amphitheatre. They are described as a great cloud of witnesses or spectators. In the stands sit the eager onlookers witnessing the event with great interest. Below is the race track where the athletes are running with one goal in mind, not only to reach the finish line, but to win the coveted prize. We can understand this illustration very easily with the Olympics and the National theatre here with us.

The first question is; “Who are the witnesses?” In this picture of the race track there are three things with which the chapter occupies itself. These are the Spectators, the Contestants, and the Prize the contestants receive as they cross the finish line. 

The Contestants

The contestants in this race are Believers who have qualified for the race by being “born again” through faith in Jesus Christ. These runners are not trying to reach heaven by their efforts. They are already saved and assured of heaven. We are not running or working for our salvation. We are saved by grace “without the works of the Law” To earn salvation we cannot lift a finger or move a foot. Many people imagine that the Christian life is running a race to get to heaven, and that they may eventually run out of wind and fail to reach the goal before they get their second wind. You may have heard a preacher address his congregation thus: “I am preaching today on a text of only four words taken from First Corinthians 9:26; “I therefore so run.” There are three points to note – the first is you have got to run to get to heaven; the second is – you have got to run awful fast to get to heaven; and the third is – you have got to keep right on running to get to heaven.” With great enthusiasm, the preacher urges his shouting and cheering congregation to keep up running fast lest they be too late. He had them running, jumping, digging, diving, climbing and flying in their efforts to get to heaven.

What a pity, the preacher did not know that there is only one way to get to heaven and “he that climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” says Jesus Christ in John 10:1. The preacher himself needs to read Romans 9:16 “So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy” The point we are trying to make here is that, the race is not our effort to get to heaven. Our getting to heaven had already been determined before we start the race.

Unless we therefore recognize the runners in the race as believers, we shall miss the lesson of the chapter. We run because we are saved, not to obtain salvation. What a tragedy it would be if it were not so, for then the weak and halt and crippled and the aged, would not have a chance of gaining heaven. The Hebrew Christians too would be shut out for they were still babes on the milk bottle. They certainly could not run in a race. Babes on feeding bottles do not run races. And this is the point in the whole Epistle – it is an appeal to the Christians to grow up into maturity and give a good account of themselves in the race.
Cloud of witnesses
Having identified the contestants in the race, we turn now to the witnesses and spectators in the stands. Who are they? I believe one word in the text identifies them. The word is “therefore” at the beginning of the verse. The “therefore” connects this chapter with the previous chapter and refers to the roll call of heroes of the faith from Abel on. Among them are such famous all-stars as Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Samson, Daniel and many others. The great company consists of past contestants in the race, who have finished the course and are now waiting for the last runner to finish the race, and then the prizes will be given. (Compare it to Israel waiting for the last old man to die before they go to possess the land of Canaan) these past contestants are watching the race from their grand stand in heaven. They are referred to as a “cloud” in the sky. There in heaven are the athletes who, having ended the race, are looking on to encourage us, to warn us and to remind us of the rules of the game. The “cloud of witnesses” is the company of the redeemed ones in heaven.

This raises a question, which is often asked:

“Do our loved ones in heaven know what is going on here below? Do they see what we are doing, and how much do they see?” 

There are two views to the matter.

First, there are those who believe that the saints in heaven do actually look down upon earth, and are interested in what we are doing. That they do know some things which are happening here below is quite evident, for Jesus says: “... there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents” (Luke 15:7). This joy is experienced by the saints for Luke 15:10 says “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents” It is not the angels who rejoice, but the joy is in the presence of the angels. Those rejoicing can be none other than the saints in glory. How they receive the news every time a sinner comes to Christ, we may not know for certain, but it is possible that they look down upon us here below and observe what we are doing and how we are running the race. This brings a solemn thought to us, that our loved ones observe us here below. But how much more solemn the fact about which there is no doubt at all, - that God sees all, knows all our thoughts and hears every word we speak. God’s eyes are never closed.

The second view on the interpretation of this cloud of witnesses is almost as solemn. While these saints may not see or know what we are doing here below, their record is a witness from the past that it is possible to run and win the race and obtain the crown. They overcame and gained the victory, so there can be no excuse for us who have far more light and greater advantages to fail or fall by the way side to “suffer loss” and be “saved so as by fire”

Whichever one of these interpretations is correct is a matter of personal opinion, and really does not matter now. The important thing is that the fact that we are being watched should be a tremendous incentive to press forward in the race, and a powerful deterrent in preventing us from being careless or breaking the rules of the game. But, as we had earlier said, the fact that God sees and knows all should be all sufficient. This is the lesson of Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore — a cloud of witnesses”

Lay aside every weight

Because of this incentive of “the cloud of witnesses”, we are admonished, “... let us lay aside ... and run the race before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Because of the example of these witnesses and their encouragement, we are to divest ourselves of every encumbrance which would impede our racing movement in any way. Two things are mentioned: weights and sins. The runner is to be properly garbed for the race. It is usually taught that the weights are a reference to the shedding of all unnecessary clothing and the putting on of the lightest racing trunks and shoes. However there is another thing suggested by weights – some think that this is a reference to obesity or excess fat, and so teach that the allusion is to the training required by athletes for getting into condition by avoiding overweight. They were to observe a strict diet and by special exercises and rigid discipline reduce their weight, and develop those muscles needed in the race. Excess fat was to be reduced to a minimum. The application is clear as it refers to the Christian. Any encumbrance would include many things in themselves harmless and innocent, but if they hinder us in the race, they should be laid aside. Fat speaks of excess pleasure and unnecessary luxuries of life. In the case of the Hebrew Christians it would include old associations of their former life, lingering Jewish and legal attachments, the tendency to compromise with the fulfilled rituals and ceremonialism of the Law, and failure to separate from unbelievers. Some Christians today behave like the Hebrews of those days. For us, in addition to these, the weights which hinder us may be the otherwise harmless associations and activities of life, indulged to an excess thus resulting in slowing us down. It could be our hobby, our exercise, our work, or even our past time activities. Your business can become a weight. If you are so busy that you have no time for prayer, Bible Study and spiritual service, you are too busy. If your business interferes with your spiritual growth and development, get rid of your business, and trust God instead of your brains. If the average believer would spend half as much time in the Word, in worship, in prayer, as he does in his social activities, he would set the world on fire. If the average believer spent as much time with the Bible as he does watching the Television, nothing could hold him down. If we would pay as much attention to our spiritual diet as to our physical diet, we would not be such weak, powerless, undernourished, dyspeptic, anaemic, enervated spiritual invalids. This is the age of diets, calories, vitamins and health foods. Everyone is concerned about health and vitality, and the best foods are demanded. Yet too many Christians feed on the husks of the world and neglect the meat of the Word, without a serious thought as to the results.

Let me just ask you; how much time did you spend this past week reading the Magazines, Trade Journals, Newspapers, Novels, Market Reports and other secular literature? How much time did you spend listening to the News? There is nothing wrong in doing all these things. They are good in themselves and absolutely harmless. But how much time did you spend feeding your soul on the Word?

My dear Christian brother, my dear Christian sister, awake! You are in a race which calls for the best that is in you. What is the weight which is slowing you down in your Christian life? I may not have put my finger on your particular deposit of excess fat, but you know what it is. Ask yourself in everything you do, does this help or hinder my spiritual life? It really is not hard if we are only willing to face it. What a disappointment it will be when we meet the Judge of the race and miss the crown and our Lord’s commendation. Athletes today as well as in ancient times would deny themselves everything, submit to the severest discipline in training, observe the strictest abstinence and separation from everything which might prevent them from being at the very peak of condition. And they, says Paul, “... do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible; I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beats the air; but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (disapproved for a crown)” (First Corinthians 9:25-27)

“So run, that you may obtain” (First Corinthians 9:24)

God bless you all.

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