In running the race of life we are to look to the exaltation of Jesus at the end of his race. But Hebrews 12:2 tells us to look not only to his exaltation, but to his motivation.
Jesus was carried in the agonies of the last lap of his race by the hope of joy. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame” (verse 2). Jesus kept his eyes on the same place we should — his own future exaltation at the Father’s right hand, with the completion of our salvation crowning his head. This was his joy.
There were mammoth obstacles in Jesus’s way. Two are mentioned. The cross and the shame. The cross, no doubt, stands for all the pain and abandonment and spiritual darkness of those hours, as he lunged, dying, to the finish line.
But shame is the one agony of the cross which the author mentions. And he said that Jesus despised it. That is an amazing choice of words. Would you have chosen such a word to say he overcame shame? He despised it.
Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of grunting and groaning and screeching.
And he despised it. What does this mean?
It means Jesus spoke to shame like this:
“Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.
You think you can distract me. I won’t even look at you. I have a joy set before me. Why would I look at you? You are ugly and despicable. And you are almost finished. You cover me now as with a shroud. Before you can say, ‘So there!’ I will throw you off like a filthy rag. I will put on my royal robe.
You think you are great, because even last night you made my disciples run away. You are a fool, Shame. You are a despicable fool. That abandonment, that loneliness, this cross — these tools of yours — they are all my sacred suffering, and will save my disciples, not destroy them. You are a fool. Your filthy hands fulfill holy prophecy.
Farewell, Shame. It is finished.”