Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hebrews 12:1 - "Something better..."

Am feeling under the weather this evening. Have been a little stressed trying to finish some work for stuff coming up, and I think over the last 48 hours, I've not taken sufficient breaks, and my body's reacting.

I have a weekly workshop where a few of us are learning to deliver a 10-minute talk based on one or a few verses. Today was the first one, and the bar was set really high by the guy who gave it. It's a familiar verse: Hebrews 12:1, but I was really struck as Al helped me make connections I had not previously seen, and gave me another springboard to better reflect on this passage.

In Hebrews, one of the big themes is that Jesus is the better way. So he's better (higher) than the angels, a better High Priest, a better sacrifice. But we also see this in Hebrews 11-12. Hebrews 11 is the famous Hall of Fame chapter, where we find a who's who of the Bible. One of the big temptations in reading this is to hastily head for the door marked 'Application': we should be just like these great heroes! We're not exactly off the beaten path here, but without preparing the groundwork, we'll simply be beating the moralistic stick.

I've never previously noticed the end of chapter 11, in verses 39-40, before, and the way they tie into the next chapter. "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." * All the Old Testament saints were acting in hope, living in light of a bright future, trusting God's promises. They were witnessing to the fact that they knew a God whom they wholeheartedly believed to be trustworthy, and so they persevered. (This has more or less been the writer's main thrust even further back in Hebrews). They are the examples by which the exhortations of the writer become concrete, tangible.

Once we see this, then the "therefore" of Hebrews 12 becomes charged with significance. Just as the saints of old finished the race, looking to God, so can we, looking to Jesus! So it isn't so much "let's be like Abraham or Moses", but more of "like Abraham, like Moses, let's look to God-made-flesh, Jesus". Indeed, Jesus provides the ultimate example, since he himself also looked to the future, "for the joy set before him endured the cross...". But he isn't just an example, but also the basis for our perseverance, as we "consider him" in light of what we know about Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. Then we can "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and...run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

So there's a subtle shift. Yes, Abraham et al. are our great examples, but they are great examples in so much as they point away from themseves to God. Finishing the race no longer depends on us mustering the same strength as some of these men, but now becomes dependent on God. I think once we see this, then we can begin to make more specific applications to our particular context and situation: how are we running the race at work and so on? But the basis for this comes, unsurprisingly, back to the gospel: our hope in Christ.

Sure there's more you can probably draw out, but this is where I got to.

*"...so that only together with us would they be made perfect" is quite a confusing phrase; I know I was confused! I think what the writer is saying here is that the saints who have gone on before would only be perfected when the new creation comes. When that day comes, all who have run the race would be perfected together. So in other words, the saints of before are waiting for us, which seems to make sense of the "cloud of witnesses" language in the next verse. It's a team game!

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