The defining characteristic of their faith was that they kept their faith in difficult circumstances even though they didn’t fully receive what God promised them. Although they only saw God’s promises and welcomed them from a distance, it gave them enough strength to overcome their hardships by faith.
And, in Hebrews 12, the author says that it’s now our turn to keep our faith. He describes the journey of faith as a race. Living out our faith is like running a race in the sense that they both have specific rules to follow, a direction toward a finish line, and a reward at the end.
To run this race well, we should throw off “Everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb 12:1). And we need perseverance because there are many temptations and hardships on the track.
So, the author strongly urges us to “[fix] our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2)
We should also remember that we’re not alone on this track. Jesus promised that he would be “with [us] always to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He never abandons us but is always with us as we run the race of faith.
Jesus is the pioneer of faith. He is the beginning and the end of our faith. He is the heavenly reward. He is the one who helps us and gives us the strength to run the race of faith.
And Jesus is the perfecter of faith. He is the one who can truly make us complete. He set the highest example of faith so that we could see it and follow his way.
So, even though the burdens of the world and our weaknesses and sin make it hard to run the race of faith to the end, we don’t have to be afraid if we trust in Jesus. If we focus on ourselves, we’ll fail. But if we give control of our lives to Jesus and try to keep our eyes fixed on him, he will lead us, guide us, and make a way for us.
Even though Hebrews tells us that we need perseverance to run the race of faith, it also tells us that the basis for that perseverance is joy.
Hebrews 12:2 says,
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb 12:2)
Jesus’ life on earth wasn’t easy. He was often misunderstood and attacked by people. After being caught by soldiers, he was mocked, ridiculed, slapped, and spit on. He was whipped and his clothes were torn. He was nailed on the cross. He was cursed and abandoned by God.
We tend to think that it wasn’t that hard for Jesus to endure the cross because he was the son of God, but it actually was. If it had been easy, Jesus wouldn’t have prayed to God to take that responsibility from him.
Nevertheless, Jesus endured the cross. And, the author of Hebrews said that he was filled with joy on the cross. It’s hard to understand why. How can the suffering, curse, and scorn of the cross coexist with joy? I think that’s an essential element of Christianity.
Paradoxically, in the most difficult moment of his life, Jesus was filled with the greatest joy. There was something special that Jesus focused on on the cross. And it gave him an enormous joy that enabled him to endure the pain of the cross.
Jesus knew the result of his death. He knew his sacrifice was for the sin of the world and that his death would create perfect and eternal redemption. Jesus knew that as a result of his sacrifice on the cross, many would be saved from their sin and death, be reconciled with God and become children of God. That was the joy Jesus focused on as he was dying.
When describing the hardships the suffering servant, the Messiah, would endure, Isaiah wrote,
“After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Is 53:11)
What Jesus really wanted to achieve through his sacrifice and death on the cross was our salvation. His joy was to see us, cleansed by his blood, in the glorious kingdom of God. For this joy, Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross.
But that wasn’t the only thing Jesus looked forward to. He also knew that God would raise him from the dead and that he would sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus knew that death wasn’t the end. What he focused on wasn’t life on earth, but life in the kingdom of God.
Joy and Christian Life
This is the joy we’re to find and experience in order to live as Christians. In Hebrews 12:3, the author urges us to “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3)
To live as a Christian and to live a holy life in the world go hand in hand with sacrifice and suffering.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (Jn 16:33)
And Paul said, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tm 3:12)
I think sacrifice and suffering are fruits of faith that those who have true faith will naturally bear in their lives. In other words, if there’s anything, even something small, that we wouldn’t sacrifice for God, we should check if we really have true faith or not.
All the ancestors of faith sacrificed what they had for their faith and they suffered on earth. They didn’t seek earthly pleasures, but lived as foreigners and strangers on earth.
Just as Jesus went through all kinds of trials, misunderstandings, mockery, and suffering, they also faced those difficulties in their lives.
But what made their lives of faith special and unique wasn’t the suffering itself, but their joy in the midst of suffering. Nothing in the world, not even severe persecution and death, could take away their joy because their joy wasn’t based in things in the world, but in God’s love, promises, and eternal kingdom.
Right after Jesus was caught by soldiers and crucified, his disciples gathered together with the door firmly locked because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. But after they saw the resurrected Jesus and received the Holy Spirit, they immediately went out and began to testify about the gospel of Jesus Christ—Jesus’ death and resurrection for the salvation of the world.
They still faced threats and persecution. But that couldn’t stop the gospel from being preached and spreading throughout the region. Nothing could prevent the apostles from proclaiming the gospel, because the more severely they were persecuted, the greater their joy became, much greater than their suffering.
Acts 5:40-41 says,
“They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Ac 5:40-41)
In fact, joy in the midst of persecution was one of the essential characteristics of Jesus’ disciples. Wherever the gospel was preached, there were objections, suffering, and persecution.
In Acts chapter 7, one of the early leaders of the church, Stephen, was stoned to death. From then on, some zealous Jews, including Saul, began to capture, persecute, and kill Christians.
Acts 8:1 says,
“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” (Ac 8:1)
But in the same chapter, Acts 8:8 says,
“There was great joy in that city.” (Ac 8:8)
Joy in the midst of suffering was a unique characteristic of Christian life.
A little earlier, we went over Jesus’ joy. His joy was to see his people being saved from sin and reconciled with God through his sacrifice. This special kind of joy is only found in Christianity.
Paul was also filled with this joy. Just like the other apostles, Paul went through hardships while preaching the gospel in many cities.
He had an especially difficult experience in Macedonia. In a letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote,
“When we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (2Co 7:5)
But Paul also said that there was comfort and joy.
“In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.” (2 Co 7:4)
How was he able to rejoice in that situation? Paul said,
“Yet now I am happy… because your sorrow led you to repentance.” (2 Co 7:9, 13)
What made Paul rejoice in difficult situations was to see the fruit of proclaiming the gospel. He heard that the members of the church in Corinth responded to the gospel with repentance and that gave him comfort and joy.
In his letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul also said,
“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1Th 2:19-20)
I think this is the joy we’re to recover as Christians. There are other different kinds of joy in Christianity. We rejoice in the Lord for his provision, love, and salvation. We are delighted at our resurrection and eternal life in the kingdom of God. These are beautiful kinds of joy that we should have as Christians.
But we should also remember that there is a reason God has given us his spiritual blessing through Christ first. God wants to see the blessing of salvation delivered through us to others around us. So God has put in us the joy of leading others to him.
When John the Baptist saw that many people who had followed him were now following Jesus, he wasn’t discouraged, but said,
“The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” (Jn 3:29-30).
John knew that he wasn’t the bridegroom but his friend. The bridegroom was Jesus and John didn’t seek the glory that belonged to him. John’s joy was to hear Jesus’ voice speaking to his bride—the church. Because John knew that his role was to prepare the way of the Lord and lead others to him, he wasn’t discouraged but filled with the joy of leading people to the true bridegroom.
Do you have and seek this kind of joy in your life? Do you have a desire to lead those around you to Jesus? We should look for this special joy in our lives. That’s what makes us eager to pray for others and lead them to Jesus.
Jesus Christ endured the shame of the cross because he was filled with the joy of saving us and reconciling us with God. If we truly know the power of the gospel and how precious it is to all of us, we’ll naturally be filled with the desire to lead others to Jesus. And we won’t be afraid to suffer and sacrifice our possessions for that purpose.
We’re looking forward to many glorious things that God has promised us. But we should also know that there’s no glory without suffering. The final reward will be only given to those who finish their race filled with sacrifice and suffering.
Before we wrap up, I want to share one of Paul’s great prayers. He prays in Colossians 1, I’ll read it in NKJV,
“For this reason we also do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Col 1:9-12, NKJV)
I hope and pray that each one of us here finds the joy of Jesus Christ today so that we can also run the race of faith with patience and perseverance until the end, looking forward to the glorious rewards in heaven that Jesus promised to give us.