If I were in your shoes, and a new preacher comes to town and presumes to stand in this sacred place where the word of God has been so faithfully proclaimed by your pastor, I would want to know: Who are you?
Not your name. Not your address. Not your job. Not your education. But what do you stand for? What are you committed to? What’s your standard of truth? What’s your authority? What’s your aim in coming here? So let me begin with three statements about my commitments so that you can decide whether you want to lean in or not.
First, I come with a total allegiance and submission to the Bible — the Christian Scriptures — as our only infallible authority. This means I come to you with no authority except what I am able to see in the Scriptures, to savor in my own soul, and to show in the power of the Holy Spirit for your upbuilding. If you don’t see what I say in the Bible, don’t believe it just because I say it.
Second, my life mission statement is this: “I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ” — which means I’m not in Oklahoma City and in this church willy-nilly, or aimlessly, or to tickle anybody’s ears. I am here on a mission. My aim in this message is to speak God’s word to you in the hope and the prayer that your passion for the supremacy of God in every area of your life will soar, with joy, through Jesus Christ.
Third, I am driven by a particular truth that became clear to me from Scripture about fifty-four years ago, when I was 22 years old. That truth has a profound and pervasive effect upon the way I think and feel about the glory of God and the joy of the human soul. That truth is this: God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, especially through your suffering in the path of love.
In other words, when you experience the living God himself — not his precious gifts, but God himself — through his Son, Jesus Christ, as so satisfying to your soul that no suffering in your life can rob you of that satisfaction in God, you make him look great. And he is. I call that kind of joy “serious joy.” You can hear what I mean by “serious joy” in Paul’s phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
So I invite you to look with me in the Scriptures at Hebrews 12:1–2, and what I hope to show is that this kind of joy is the spring of love — and I mean love for people, especially the kind of love that is very costly. The question I am trying to answer is: How can I (and how can you) be set free from selfishness so that, at any cost to myself, I will love other people in a way that makes Christ look great?
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.
We’re not going to focus on everything in this text, but rather almost entirely on the words in verse two: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” But let’s at least get these words situated in the flow of thought so they don’t dangle in isolation.
The Life of Faith Is a Marathon
Chapter 11 celebrates the faith of Old Testament saints who, though they are dead, continue to speak (Hebrews 11:4); that is, their lives remain a living witness to us about the value of living by faith. So you can see at the beginning of the next chapter, in Hebrews 12:1, how the writer pictures us as running our own race with the lives of these saints, as it were, crying out to us, “You can do this! You can make it to the end! We finished our race in faith. You can finish yours. Don’t quit!”
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [all those witnessing stories from chapter 11], 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 . . .
In other words, life is a marathon. It’s not a 100-meter dash. It is long, and there are hills that make your muscles burn to the point where they are screaming at you, “You can’t finish this!” And all these witnesses are saying, “Yes, you can.” There may be hills and sleet and wind in your face, but the book of Hebrews was written to help us finish in faith and love.
What Helps Me Run Well?
Hebrews 12:1 also says, “Don’t run this marathon with an overcoat on, and don’t run this marathon with performance-enhancing drugs in your veins.” Do you see that in the middle of the verse? “. . . let us lay aside every weight, and sin . . .” We’re not stupid, and we don’t cheat. It’s stupid to wear an overcoat, and it’s cheating to use drugs — weights and sins.
I tried to raise four sons and one daughter in the Lord, and I recall numerous times that they wanted to do something I disapproved of. So they would sometimes ask, “What’s wrong with it?” With this text in my mind, I would say, “With your music, your movies, your parties, and your habits, don’t just ask, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Ask instead, ‘Does it help me run the race? Does it help me run with all my focus and energy and love for Jesus? Does it help me be the best Christ-exalting marathon runner I can be?’”
Don’t set your sights on the minimal standard of avoiding cheating. Set your sights on the maximal standard: How can I be the most devoted, Christ-exalting runner possible, with every weight removed?
So the main point of this text is: Run! Get rid all the sins you can. Get rid of all the weights and hindrances that you can. Take hold of the marathon of your life, and don’t just set the pitifully low standard of, “What’s against the rules?” But rather: “How can I train, and eat, and think, and dress to be the best runner possible? How can I live my life and finish my course with maximal, Christ-exalting faith?”
He Who Already Finished
Hebrews 12:2 now gives us perhaps the deepest answer to that question. You are going to face the hills, and cold, and wind, and the burning in your legs, and the thundering of your heart, and the thoughts of hopelessness about finishing — and you are going to face them like this:
. . . 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.
You are going to look to Jesus as you run. And what you are going to focus on, as you look to him, is this: He too ran. His race was thirty-three years long. And it ended with a horrific gauntlet of opposition and suffering — namely, the unspeakable torture of the cross and the immeasurable shame of such a death. He ran it. He finished it.
Fueled by Joy
How did he do it? Mark the words in the middle of the second verse: “. . . for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame . . .” And surely you will agree that the marathon Jesus ran was a marathon of love. The last few hours of that marathon, which he ran with nails in his hands and his feet, with a spear in his side, a crown of thorns on his head, were the greatest act of love that has ever been performed in the history of the world, because he was dying for our sins, not his own.
My question for my life — and your life — is: How can I run like this? How can I be set free from my selfishness so that, at any cost to myself, I will love other people in a way that makes this Christ look great? And the central answer of this verse is: the greatest act of love that was ever performed was performed “for the joy that was set before him.”
Hebrews 12:2 teaches us that Jesus was sustained through the cross and through the shame by the joy that he anticipated at the end of his marathon. That does not mean that there is no powerful sustaining experience of joy now, during the marathon itself.
And I say that because the book of Hebrews defines faith, by which we run the marathon, like this: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). This means that the full, complete, all-satisfying, everlasting joy in God that we are hoping for at the end of our marathon becomes, in some measure, an experience right now. It happens by faith in the midst of our “cross,” in the midst of our “shame” — our marathon. That’s why it has such selfishness-killing, cross-bearing, shame-enduring power.
Glad to Sacrifice
What if someone says, “Doesn’t that turn the love of Christ at the cross into selfishness? If he was just seeking his own joy at the end of the race, was he loving us?” The answer is this: in being sustained through the cross by the joy at the end of his race, he’s not being selfish because selfishness is using other people to get your own happiness without any regard to theirs.
“Jesus didn’t pursue happiness at the expense of other people. He pursued happiness through dying for other people.”
But nobody calls it “selfishness” when you’re willing to die to include other people in your happiness. This joy, that Jesus hoped for and tasted and was sustained by at the end of his marathon, was precisely designed to be shared by everyone for whom he died. He didn’t pursue his happiness at the expense of other people. He pursued his happiness through dying for other people — to include them in it.
For you and me this means that in all the sufferings of our marathon, it is not selfish but loving to be sustained by the hope of everlasting joy in God, into which we are bringing as many people as we can. That’s what the marathon is for — joy in Christ, sustaining you through the sacrifices of love, making Christ look so satisfying that others want to go with you.
Every Christian’s Sustenance
Let’s ask this question: If this joy set before us — this spring, overflowing from the future back into the present — is so powerful in producing and supporting the sacrifices of love, and if this is not only the way Jesus was sustained in the greatest act of love, but the way we should be sustained in our acts of love, are there examples elsewhere in the book of Hebrews that would show us what this experience is like?
Yes, there are. I’ll show you two.
Christ, Our Abiding Joy
First, consider Hebrews 10:32–34. Listen for echoes of Hebrews 12:2: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.”
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
Oklahoma City, where you live, and Minneapolis, where I live, need to see Christians like this more than anything. Some of them had been thrown into prison. The others had to decide whether to identify with them and risk the plundering of their property as fellow Christians or to go underground and save their own skin. Compassion — that is, sacrificial love (which corresponds here to Jesus’s cross and shame) — conquered fear, and they had compassion on those who were in prison.
How did that happen? How did they become people like that? How did they overcome their selfishness, their love for comfort and security? The answer is that joy streamed hope from the future back into the present and sustained and empowered them for love. Let’s read it in Hebrews 10:34:
For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [How? Where did that costly compassion come from? The last part of the verse gives us the answer.], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
“If this world is your treasure, you will not be able to love in a way that makes Christ look great.”
This was the joy that was set before them. They might lose their reputation. They might lose their houses. They might lose their positions. They might lose their lives. But those were not the spring of their joy. That was with Christ, in the future, streaming back into the present, by faith, making love possible.
If this world is your treasure, rather than the immeasurable pleasures of being with Christ forever, you will not be able to love in a way that makes Christ look great. But if Christ is the all-satisfying joy set before you, you will.
Christ, Our Future Reward
Here’s the second example, Hebrews 11:24–26 — a description of how Moses was able to choose the hard path of loving the people of Israel rather than staying in the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God [like Jesus chose the cross] than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. [There are sinful pleasures, but they’re not the ones we’re after because they are too short. They only last eighty years or so.] He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
“Hoped-for joy in Christ sustains sacrifices of love that make Christ look so satisfying, others want to run with us.”
This was the joy set before him. More precious, more satisfying than all the treasures of Egypt was the reward of finishing his marathon with Israel through the wilderness — through the cross, the shame — and joining all those Old Testament witnesses in the presence of the Messiah.
Go Deep with Jesus
My conclusion from Hebrews 12, and 10, and 11, is that the meaning of the Christian life — our marathon — is hoped-for joy in Christ, streaming back into the present by faith, sustaining sacrifices of love that make Christ look so satisfying that others want to run with us.
And my concluding plea is: Get to know Jesus Christ. Go deep with Jesus until he is the supreme Treasure of your life and the all-satisfying joy set before you at the end of your marathon.
- Go deep with the vastness of his wisdom, far greater than Solomon’s.
- Go deep with the greatness of his power, upholding the universe with his word.
- Go deep with his majesty, which is this very day above all governments and armies.
- Go deep with the tenderness of his kindness, blessing children and everyone like them.
- Go deep with the uniqueness of his words, for no one ever spoke like this man.
- Go deep with the length of his patience, perfect toward all penitent sinners.
- Go deep with the suffering of his love, even for enemies.
- Go deep with his mercy, touching lepers, putting ears back on attacking soldiers.
Get to know him until he is the joy set before you at the end of your marathon. If he becomes that for you, three things will happen. (1) Your joy, even in the sufferings of this life, will overflow. (2) That joy will sustain a life of sacrificial love for others. (3) That joy-sustained love will make Jesus look like the all-satisfying Savior that he is.