Last week we spent a few days in Hebrews chapter 11, the Old Testament hall of faithfulness. The writer, having reminded his audience of their own example (chapter 10), reeled off a list of faithful people from Israel’s history as further examples to emulate. Each one gave up something in their present existence in order to take hold of something far greater in the future, which God had promised. They lived as foreigners and strangers (like the Jewish-Christian minority being addressed), they rejected the trappings of status and citizenship of their earthly cities, and they accepted all kinds of mistreatment as the people of God, because they had faith that God had something far better in store.
He says, in light of all that we’ve heard in chapter 11,
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
The imagery is of a stadium filled with people watching a sporting event, such as the ancient Olympic games. Except the crowd isn’t made up of armchair spectators, but people who have run the race in years gone by, and triumphed.
The appeal is to a sense of honour: with all of these past greats watching our performance, how can we not put in 100% and make it to the finish line like they did?
But it’s more than that. With the notable exception of Rahab, they were all Israelites. Some were the founders of the faith, like Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. The revered ones of Judaism. They are the ones cheering them on in the stands! The pillars of the Jewish faith are encouraging them to remain loyal to Jesus, and not to go back to their former, Jewish way of thinking.
The impact of this is profound. It paints the Jews who were shaming and persecuting them as the deviants; the Jews who had rejected Jesus as Messiah the ones who’d got it wrong. So much so that their heroes are now on our side! In light of that, how can we not keep going!
But then, in the next verse, the writer moves to the climax of this series of examples. It’s not just their own example they ought to follow; not just the heroes of Scripture. It’s also that of Jesus himself.
12:1b-2a And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith[fulness].
If you want to run a race – particularly one that requires endurance – you focus not on where you are, but on the finish line. You visualise the end in order to keep you going.
But in this case, it’s not just an empty finish line. In this image, Jesus is standing there, having already finished the race, waiting for us. He’s the pioneer – the one who’s conquered the course, and in whose footsteps we simply need to follow. It’s his example, more than all of these others, that encourages us to keep going.
The reason given is important:
12:2b For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
There are two key things to notice about this important sentence in Hebrews:
(1) Jesus, too, followed the same pattern we saw in chapter 11. He endured hardship (the cross) in order to experience something greater (the joy set before him), and indeed he has now entered into that greater experience (he now sits at the right hand of the throne of God).
So if Jesus had to go through suffering and hardship in order to gain something greater, shouldn’t we expect it too? And given what he’s done for us – bearing the punishment that should have been ours – how can we not follow him down that path?
(2) “Scorning its shame” is crucial. In an honour-shame world in which reputation was considered more important than money or health or even life itself, shame is a powerful force. Shame was how society forced deviants (like Jesus-followers) back into conformity.
In most accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion (both in the Gospels and in references made by the other New Testament writers) it’s the shame that’s most highlighted, rather than the physical suffering. So by scorning or (in some translations) despising its shame, Jesus is setting an example for us. He treated society’s view of what was honourable and what was shameful with contempt, because he had God’s values in mind. The world can think what it likes about crucifixion being shameful; in Jesus’ mind, his death was honourable, because it was carrying out the will of God to bring forgiveness to others.
In light of that example, the writer to the Hebrews is encouraging his audience to think similarly: to despise the shame that their family and their community pours on them for following Jesus, knowing that they just don’t get it. It’s God’s definition of what’s honourable and what’s shameful that counts. Who cares what the world thinks. (You think this is a bit of a radical message in today’s society? It was revolutionary in a first century world far more conservative and intolerant of individualism than ours.)
Despise the attempted shaming by those who are against you. Go outside the camp (as it says in chapter 13) to bear the disgrace Jesus bore. If he bore the shame of the cross for you, how can you not bear the shame of being one of his followers?
12:3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Jesus suffered. For you. So if you suffer for him, remember his example, and keep going.
12:4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Because he died for you. You’re still alive. Just sayin’.
To think about
What shaming do you experience (or have you experienced) that tries to persuade you to give up on Jesus? Or, more commonly, to practise your faith privately, without drawing attention to yourself?
How can you learn to “despise shame”?
What is it about Jesus’ example that most motivates you to persevere in faithfulness?