I have absolutely loved watching the Olympics. It doesn’t matter which sport you watch, it is evident that those who are competing have spent an incredible amount of time practicing, getting stronger and faster, preparing mentally and physically so that they would be ready when the competition began.
One of my favorite competitions within the Olympics is the Track and Field competition. I love watching the men and women line up on the starting line and race to the finish. So many of us watch the races and think, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of talent!?” The truth is that all of the runners have talent, but that is not what got them to the Olympics. The runners that you and I are watching compete have something in addition to talent—they have dedication and perseverance.
I love the “spotlights” that NBC shows during their broadcast showing the behind-the-scenes looks at what the athletes have gone through to get to the Olympics. They have paid a price that few are willing to pay and that is why they are successful.
There are some similarities that I’ve noticed about the runners who are competing in the Olympics. When the runners arrive at the track most of them are wearing their warm-ups, they’ve got headphones on listening to music, and they are laughing and joking with their coaches and friends.
As their races draw near things begin to change. The runners begin to shed any unnecessary clothing that might slow them down, they trade their favorite pair of street shoes for racing spikes, and they take off their headphones and put them in their bags so they can get ready for their race.
I’ve also noticed something that the runners do while the race is going on. Every runner shares a common focus. While they run they keep their eyes focused straight ahead. They don’t look at those beside them. They are not concerned with whether or not their hair is in place or if they look “nice.” They don’t gaze into the stands at their mom or dad or wave at their friends as they run by the grandstands. They are on a mission and they are looking for the finish line.
You may be wondering to yourself this morning, “Why is Mike telling us all of this? I thought I was going to church to learn about the Lord? I don’t need to know about all of this track ‘stuff’ – I need to know how I can grow in my relationship with the Lord — how I can live my life so that it glorifies God.” Oh, my friend you are so right about what you and I need, but what you may fail to recognize is that the discipline, training, endurance, focus, and faith of those young people who are competing in the Olympics may possibly have more to do with you and me living lives of obedience and faithfulness than most of what is offered to us in the typical church.
Before we get to our Scripture this morning, I want to show you how often the Apostle Paul used athletic imagery to illustrate the “race” of faith that God calls us to in life. We are in a race you know? It’s no sprint. No 100-yard dash. No jog through the park. It’s not a casual stroll. We are in a race and it is a marathon that requires our absolute dependence upon the One who calls us to the starting line, the One who robes us in our racing gear, and the One who gives us the endurance to stay on the track filled with trials, tribulations, and tests like we can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder Paul uses the arena of athletic competition to teach his friends in the faith! Take a look at some of Paul’s wisdom. Paul’s words move us like no coach that has ever lived.
In Acts 20, Paul speaks of his own life, his own race, and his heart’s desire to face any obstacle or trial in order that he might finish the race that the Lord has called him to run. Read along with me.
22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22-24 NIV)
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians he knew that they were not running like disciplined athletes. They had taken their eyes off the finish line, off of the One who had called them to run in a way so as to get the prize. They wanted to sit this one out, but Paul once again used his own life to try and stir their hearts. Paul writes,
24 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NIV)
Paul knew that he would never see the finish line in this life. Like any championship athlete, Paul knew that he must always stay in shape; he must always yearn and strive to get bigger, faster, and stronger (spiritually). Paul knew that God was calling him to a deeper obedience, a greater submission, and a heightened passion for the things of God. This is why Paul writes to the Philippians and says,
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV)
In 1 Timothy, Paul sought to counsel young Timothy, and he counsels you and me today, to resist the urge to just play church and go through the motions of middle-of-the-road Christianity. Paul says,
12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12 NIV)
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he used the imagery of the soldier, athlete, and farmer as he urged Timothy to be single-minded and to keep his passion burning bright for the things of God so that he would be strong in the grace of the Lord. It will be the grace of God, and only the grace of God, that will empower us to endure hardships and the grueling grind of running the race of life without losing hope. Paul writes,
3 Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer. 5 Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. (2 Timothy 2:3-7 NIV)
These are just a sampling of how Paul used athletic imagery throughout his letters to men and women who were running the race of faith. When we come to the book of Hebrews we see the same type of imagery used. We don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but at least this section of Hebrews 12 sounds so much like Paul. Take a look at Hebrews 12:1-3 with me.
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. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV)
When we come to the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, the very first word that we run into is the word, “Therefore.” This is an important word because it is a transitional word that brings us to the finale of the section of God’s Word that began at Hebrews 10:19. Turn to Hebrews 10:19 and let’s read together.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23 NIV)
He says, “Since God has done all of this for us – let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.” If we read on, we run into a long list of men and women throughout the Old Testament who encountered every kind of obstacle, every kind of trial, every kind of heartache, but they held unswervingly to the hope they professed. Let me wrap us this review by reading Hebrews 11:32-39.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:32-39 NIV)
So, you can see that “Therefore” has a lot packed into it when we come to Hebrews 12. Now, let’s take a look at verse 1 once again.
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. (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)
Running With a Great Cloud of Witnesses
The “cloud of witnesses” that is referred to are those men and women, those faithful souls who have gone before us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses! Not just those who are listed in Hebrews 11, but libraries could be filled with the stories of faithful men, women, boys, and girls who have gone before us choosing to cling to the Lord. Men like Nicholas Ridley, the Archbishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, the Archbishop of Worcester.
It was 1553, when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, later known as “Bloody Mary” for her execution of so many reformers, came to the throne. Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Nicholas Ridley (Archbishop of London), and Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester) were summoned to appear before a commission in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford to be examined for their alleged Protestant heresies. They would not admit to a belief in transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper literally become the body and blood of Jesus, and they were all found guilty. Ridley and Latimer were separated after their condemnation in St. Mary’s Church. They had to stay in separate houses as they awaited their execution in two weeks.
The morning of the October 15th, 1555, was just as damp as the day of the trial when the two friends met at the stake. Onlookers remarked how stooped and bent the Bishops looked as they journeyed through the streets, but how strong and radiant they became when at the stake they removed their outer garments and stood in new white singlets which reached to their feet. Mr. Shipside, a relative of Ridley’s, stood in the crowd and he had asked permission from Lord William of Thame to be allowed to put gunpowder packages around the necks and beneath the arms of the victims. This was granted as a mercy so that they might have a quick ending once the fire took hold. Soon the brushwood was piled up around them and they stood knee deep in wood. As the soldier in charge reached out his taper and lit the brushwood it began to flare. It was at this point in time that Latimer spoke up and uttered those now famous words: “Be of good cheer Master Ridley and play the man. For we shall this day, by God’s grace, light such a candle in England as shall never be put out”. Within minutes Latimer was dead as much from the thickness of the fumes as from the heat of the flames. Ridley however was to need all the strength he could get from Latimer’s final words to him. He was actually standing on green wood which itself was damp and so refused to catch fire and just smoldered under his feet. After what seemed an age he called out to Mr. Shipside to do something to help him as he could stand the agony no longer. All in a fluster Mr. Shipside piled more wood on which caused the fire to die down even more, thus prolonging poor Ridley’s pain and cooking his feet and legs right through. Soon however a soldier pushed through the crowd and used his bill hook to make an air hole in the wood pile. This being done the wind blew, the fire flared, and touched the gunpowder sag around his neck. Thus in one final blast Nicholas Ridley went to glory and the marriage supper he had so looked forward to. (Taken from the Oxford History website. http://www.occ.org.uk/students/history/tour9.htm)
I could spend the next many, many weeks simply adding to the list of those men and women, boys and girls who are now in that great crowd of witnesses that surrounds us. Being surrounded by such a great crowd of faithful men and women should inspire us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”
Remember how the runners in the Olympics took off all of their unnecessary clothing, put their headphones in their bag, and got rid of every thought, every item, that would distract them from running the race? When we are encouraged to “throw off everything that hinders” – we are being encouraged to examine ourselves as a runner takes stock of what he needs and what will only slow him down.
What’s Holding You Back?
The Greek word for “hinder” means, “that which serves to hinder or prevent someone from doing something, a hindrance or an impediment.” A “hindrance” is not necessarily something bad. A hindrance to a runner is anything that will prevent him from running as fast as he can. There is nothing bad or immoral about sweat pants or headphones, but they are a hindrance because they will only distract or slow a runner from accomplishing his mission on the track. And so it is with you and me. We must examine our mission, our hearts, and all of those things that will hold us back from running towards the high calling of Jesus Christ.
What is it that is holding you back this morning? What is weighing you down? What’s keeping you from running with all of your heart and soul for the King? If each of us took the time this morning to make a list you might find some things that we have in common, but there would also be things that would be on my list that you might not find on yours. Whatever it is that is keeping you from pursuing the Lord with a runner’s passion and determination then you are being called to throw it off, put it aside, and run with passion.
Get Rid Of “It!”
The second thing the writer of Hebrews calls us to do is to “throw off the sin that so easily entangles us.” The Greek word for “entangle” is an interesting word, a powerful word that we need to understand. This is not just “sin” in general, but sin that progressively tightens its control over your life and mine. The Greek word means, “pertaining to the exertion of tight control, being in control of, controlling tightly.” It is the sin that controls us so tightly, cleverly placing itself around in order to exert tight control. Sin is deceptive isn’t it? Sin entices us, lures us, with its promises of escape from the trouble we are in, the mundane experiences of life, and the excitement that it promises. Sin lures us, but when we take the bait sin leads us deeper and deeper into its clutches draining the life out of us with every step we take.
I could paint a thousand scenarios of this progression of sin, but each of us knows already how devastated our lives can become because of the ever-tightening grip of sin upon our souls. Each of us has our own story that we could tell.
We are not simply called to “throw off,” but we are called to run the race that God has set before us. God has called us to run in an intentional way, with endurance. Hebrews 12:1 says, “…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Run With Perseverance
We are called to run the race with “perseverance.” The Greek word for perseverance means, “steadfastness, constancy, or endurance.” It is the characteristic of a man who is unswerved from his deliberate purpose and his loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings. The word is used many times in the New Testament where the followers of Jesus are going through hard times, but each time they are called to bear up under the weight of their trials.
You need to know that biblical perseverance is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of toughness. We are able to persevere because we have a hope, a confidence that our suffering, our trials, have a purpose and we will experience deliverance from all of our troubles one day.
Paul wrote to the Romans and told them that they could gain strength for enduring by understanding the lives of those who had gone before them and God’s holy Word. Paul wrote,
4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, (Romans 15:4-5 NIV)
Not only can we gain great strength from seeing how Moses, Esther, David, and others persevered, but God can use our struggles to encourage others. Paul wrote to the people of Thessalonica and said,
3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3 NIV)
Our greatest inspiration for persevering is not found in what the great crowd of witnesses has suffered, nor in the fact that we can be a source of encouragement to others, but our great inspiration is found in the One who endured Calvary’s cross for our sake. When I consider what Jesus endured for my sins and how He willing went to the cross so that I might know the forgiveness that only comes through His pain, then I am encouraged to press on, endure on, and persevere. The great Charles Haddon Spurgeon once wrote,
Oh! I do not wonder that the martyrs died for such a Christ as this! When the love of Christ is shed abroad in our hearts, then we feel that if the stake were present we would stand firmly in the fire to suffer for him who died for us. I know our poor unbelieving hearts would soon begin to quail at the crackling wood and the furious heat. But surely this love would prevail over all our unbelief: Are there any of you who feel that if you follow Christ you must lose by it, lose your station, or lose your reputation? Will you be laughed at, if you leave the world and follow Jesus? Oh! and will you turn aside because of these little things when he would not turn aside, though all the world mocked him, till he could say “It is finished.” No, by the grace of God, let every Christian lift his hands to the Most High God, to the maker of heaven and earth, and let him say within himself, “Now for the love I bear his name, what was my gain I count my loss, I pour contempt on all my shame, and nail my glory to his cross.” (Rev. C.H. Spurgeon, January 30th, 1859, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens.)
My earnest prayer for each of us this morning is that we would hear the Master’s voice calling us to the race He has set before us. Won’t you throw off everything that would keep you from running with endurance the race He has set before you this day? Won’t you run with determination? Won’t you run with conviction? Won’t you run with perseverance? Won’t you invite Jesus into your heart so that He might robe you in His racing gear and fix your eyes upon the finish line of faith?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 5, 2012