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Going for Gold
Members of our family are keen on sport. In fact, our son was once a fitness instructor and is a very enthusiastic off-road cyclist. It’s not for me, I’m afraid!
Our sons-in-law are also keen. Running, cycling and water sports are all on their agendas. It’s not for me, I’m afraid!
Our daughters and daughter in law are also sporty, but…it’s not for me, I’m afraid. Not any more!
Time was when I volunteered for the College soccer team but was quickly relegated to the subs’ bench when true abilities were displayed on the field! Mind you, cricket was another matter: I was a reasonable bowler and batsman and when I was an Anglican minister I actually played the noble game for my Diocese! There’s a claim to fame!
My Mum always insisted that I was built for comfort rather than speed(!) and for all these years I have sheltered like a coward behind that maternal assessment.
But while the great sporting arenas of the world have been deprived of my brilliant athleticism, there is another arena where my performance as a winner or a loser is all too visible. I refer, of course, to the world’s witness of my Christian discipleship.
IN BIBLE TIMES
For the vast majority of people, life during the centuries covered by the Old Testament left little time for leisure activities. Folks were far too occupied with keeping body and soul together! Mention sporting pursuits to them and you would likely get the response, “Chance would be a fine thing!”
Whilst the burden of living from day to day left little time for physical sport, many things took on a competitive edge and were pursued vigorously. Doubtless a young man like David took pride in his prowess with a sling and it is highly likely that there were contests between him and his contemporaries. After all, it is the competitive attitude that produces excellence and David was certainly an excellent shot. If Goliath could still talk he would confirm that!
Jonathan, son of King Saul, was practising his archery by shooting at a target in 1 Samuel 20:20. Job complained that God had surrounded him with his archers so that they used him for target practice (Job 16:12-13)! Jeremiah complained of a similar thing in Lamentations 3:12.
There are biblical references to running, wrestling, javelin throwing and hunting. But all such activities had a purpose connected with survival. Fitness and skill in these disciplines could mean the difference between life and death.
Enter the Greeks
It is the coming of the Greeks that brought a fresh approach to competitive sport. No longer was its purpose seen as a necessary activity to keep one sharp and able to provide for and defend oneself and one’s family, but now it became less utilitarian and grew increasingly as a form of entertainment. Sport for sport’s sake. Competition became the all absorbing purpose. The winner takes all.
Greek culture placed great stress upon the beauty of the human form and human endeavour. So the image of a sleek athlete was an ideal to which many aspired. It figures in much Greek art, and some Classical sculptures and friezes of sportsmen are regarded as among the most beautiful objects ever made.
Organised festivals of sport were a major feature of Greek life. The largest celebrations were the Olympic Games (at Olympia) and the Isthmian Games (at Corinth). The Olympics started around 776 BC and were held in honour of Zeus, king of the gods. They were held in the Valley of Elis in the shadow of Mount Olympus in southwest Greece. People poured into the valley every four years from all over the Empire to worship Zeus as they competed and watched.
Most events took place in the stadium, while chariot and horse races took place in the hippodrome.
Stadium events included both track and field. The length of the stadium provided the basic measurement for races.
1) The Stadion was a foot race over a single length of the track.
2) The Dialos was a foot race over two lengths.
3) The Dolichos was a long distance race that was probably run over twenty four lengths.
4) The Hoplitodromos was a two stadia foot race run in full armour!
5) The Pentathlon was a five-discipline event comprising the stadion, discus, javelin, jumping and wrestling. Not surprisingly, the winner of a Pentathlon was heralded as the complete athlete.
7) The Penkration. A very vicious and dangerous activity combining boxing and all-in wrestling. Serious injury was commonplace and so the Penkration was popular and successful participants were treated like pop stars!
There are many works of art dating from the time that portray athletes engaging in a wide range of sports. A uniting feature in many of the events is that competitors were stripped for action. Quite literally so – they competed naked! This, together with the pagan nature of the Games placed them out of bounds for observant Jewish people. Mind you, there were a significant number of liberal Jews who were attracted by Greek thinking and life-style, and these Hellenistic Jews developed a love for everything Greek including the Games.
Training for the Games was rigorous, and it is said that a wrestler named Milo carried a calf in his arms as he trained, and as the calf grew heavier, Milo grew stronger! I’m not surprised!
The Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece also embraced the Isthmian Games, named after the isthmus of Corinth, where they took place, the Nemean Games and the Pythian Games. The cycle of these four great sporting occasions was spread over a four year period but the Olympics were supreme.
Participants represented their different cities around the Greek Empire and during the period of the Games an empire wide truce was imposed to enable athletes and spectators to travel in safety.
Competitiveness between city states gave local champions tremendous prestige and rewards were often lavish. As might be expected, political rivalry between cities like Athens and Corinth led to much animosity and led at times to intrigue and underhanded schemes to influence the results and thereby raise the city’s status!
Enter the Romans
What the Romans lacked in cultural finesse they more than made up for in ambition. Early in their history, the Romans were aware of Greek culture and sought to incorporate many aspects of it into their own. The Games impressed them, but during the Republican period they were cautious because they associated the Greek gymnasium with perverse sexual activities. In the light of the scandalous excesses of later Imperial Rome, it is fascinating that Romans of the earlier Republic considered public nudity scandalous and sought to avoid moral corruption.
However, after Rome conquered Greece in 146 BC, Greek culture seeped into the Roman way of life. Wealthy Romans placed Greek statues of athletes in their gardens and bathhouses. Attitudes towards the Games changed and they began to organise gatherings of their own along Greek lines.
With the demise of the Republic, Imperial Rome was ruled by Emperors like Augustus, Nero and Domitian. These were all admirers of Greek culture and in 86 AD, the Capitolian Games were introduced to Rome itself.
The Romans engaged in sports of various kinds on a local level and built vast numbers of public entertainment buildings – theatres, amphitheatres, hippodromes and arenas. When it came to athletics and field events, many of the participants in the larger Roman meetings were Greek professionals who travelled around much as international sportsmen do today.
Rome was obsessed with entertainments of many kinds and in the period covered by the New Testament, awareness of the various Games was commonplace even amongst the Jews. Hellenistic Jews were enthusiasts and even the more traditional and observant Jews had more than a passing awareness of all the latest sports gossip.
The Olympic Games were held every four years for 1170 years from 776 BC to 393 AD. That year the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius the First abolished them as a pagan aberration.
The Games were simply forgotten for over 1500 years, but on Sunday, March 24th 1896 the Games were revived in Athens. The 2012 Olympic Games are known officially as the Games of the 30th Olympiad of the modern era.
An essential part of the Olympics was the worship of Zeus and many within the Olympic movement would like to preserve that religious element. Indeed the Official Olympic Anthem shows that pagan worship is still around. Here is a 2001 translation by Sotiris Sotiropoulos of the original Greek text written in 1893 by Costis Palamas:
“Ancient immortal spirit, pure father of the beautiful, the great and the true,
Descend, appear, and emblaze this place with the glory of your own earth and sky.
In the race, the grappling and the toss, kindle the impulse in all noble contests;
Crown with the perennial wreath and fashion the steely and worthy body.
Plains, mountains and seas glow in your presence like some great, clear porphyrous shrine,
And every nation hurries here to your temple in supplication, ancient immortal spirit.”
This was adopted as the official Olympic Hymn by the International Olympic Committee in 1957.
TO WATCH OR NOT TO WATCH: THAT IS THE QUESTION
Some believers face a genuine dilemma when confronted with events and situations having non-Christian, sub-Christian or anti-Christian elements. Should they have anything to do with them? It provokes them when they enter a Chinese or Indian restaurant and foreign gods are on display and they suspect that at least some of the members of staff are worshippers of these deities.
I know of some Christians who draw the line at doing business with Freemasons and they would become insecure if they discovered a business with which they were dealing was headed up by a Mormon.
These are real issues for some and such believers may well have difficulties in greeting the Olympics with too much enthusiasm because of their pagan connections.
This is a large subject but permit me to offer one or two comments that may be helpful. I base my opinion on Paul’s stated position in regard to partaking of food that had been offered to idols at Corinth.
Paul devotes the whole of 1 Corinthians 8 to one of the questions that had been posed by the Christians at Corinth. Should born again believers eat meat that has previously been dedicated to pagan gods?
The problem arose because the false goddess Aphrodite was the patron deity of Corinth and thousands of Corinthians and visitors to the city engaged in the orgiastic rites that featured in Aphrodite worship. Offerings of meat were part of the rituals and the vast numbers of worshippers meant that the priests had
more meat than they could cope with! Much of it found its way into the public meat market. It carried no warning sticker, so customers at the butchers’ counters could not tell if meat had been offered to idols or not. This was disturbing some of the Christians because they had a strong (and commendable) desire to distance themselves from anything and everything associated with their former way of life.
As you read the chapter, Paul’s position becomes clear. As far as he is concerned these so-called gods (like Aphrodite) are not gods at all! There is only one God – the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! So these idols to whom meat has been offered are gods only in the minds of the worshippers: there is no substance to their belief.
If a Christian is secure in his belief in the uniqueness of Jesus and his heavenly Father, he can eat whatever is put before him without let or hindrance.
This sounds straightforward enough, but there was a problem at Corinth. New birth in Christ, and an immediate sense of what is holy, showed up the filth of what they had formerly been involved in. Aphrodite religion was filled with perversions of many kinds and the sense of having been tainted by such things must have been strong. They were very troubled by any hangover from their former religion. For them meat that had been offered to Aphrodite was defiled (8:7) and they felt their faith was compromised if they ate it. Their sensibilities were not helped by what they perceived as the libertarianism of some of their brethren who bought and ate meat with impunity, whatever its source. It was a serious situation.
Paul shows that love must rule. In 8:9-13 he cautions restraint and says that we must above all maintain sensitive fellowship with one another. If any brother is still haunted by the influence of his pagan background, he must be treated gently and permitted to eat as his own conscience dictates. Furthermore
Paul says that while he is himself free to eat it, for the sake of love he will refrain from meat if it causes his brother to stumble. The truth is that it takes some of us longer to become completely free than others. We need to be understanding and patient with our brothers and sisters, and they need to be patient and understanding with us. It’s called fellowship!
I feel this has something to say in regard to the Olympic Games and our enjoyment of them. If a brother or sister is offended by the Zeus connection that is maintained through the opening ceremonies and the Olympic Hymn, it is better not to watch or attend (or even to take part!), but for others it will present no problem on the ground that Zeus never was a god and never will be a god! As Paul would say, “Zeus is nothing at all in the world and there is no God but one.”
For freedom Christ has set us free. We are free to watch and free not to watch: free to take part and free not to take part. Let every one act according to his own conscience without finding fault with another brother or sister.
This is an important issue. It impacts our whole approach to false gods. They are nothing. The devil uses them to scare Christians and pretends that they have all sorts of grand powers, but they have none. We are dealing with Satan the deceiver here. It is Satan and his demons who exercise angelic power to deceive, and part of the deception is to set up false gods and suggest that they have divine powers and so must be appeased. Uninformed folks who think they are worshipping a god other than the Lord God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, are unwittingly but actually worshipping Satan.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
The Olympic Games provide Christians with a remarkable stimulus to active faith. Participating athletes have disciplined themselves to a level of fitness that enables them to achieve heights of performance that seem incredible. They have trained hard and have trainers that are determined to see them succeed. The result is seen on the track and in the field, and it is impressive!
I am certain that when we watch these fit young people achieving such great things, most of us have pangs of conscience that we are abusing our own bodies through bad diet and lethargic life style. Oh to be fit! Oh to be in peak condition! Oh to function at the optimum level!
For most of us it will remain a dream and we have to content ourselves with living that dream through the endeavour of others. As runners thunder round the track, I can easily imagine myself running too: a longing expressed vicariously in my vivid imagination…but it is all a fantasy! Here I am sitting on the edge of my chair while they are out there doing it.
See how young they are! However hard I tried I could never achieve what they do because my ageing body is beyond that level of training. I’ve left it far too late…years too late.
Now here’s the good news! Ageism is not a factor in the Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! My spiritual athleticism is not limited by my physical limitations. And here, surely, is the most wonderful challenge:
IF I WANT TO BE A CHAMPION FOR CHRIST, THERE IS ONLY ONE THING STOPPING ME…ME!
GOING FOR GOLD!
The Letter to the Hebrews has within it a statement bringing the world of athletics into the heart of our faith. Hebrews 12:1-13 was written with the Games in mind. Quite clearly the Jewish writer was well aware of what went on inside a stadium. His description is vivid. Had he attended a race meeting, or is his description based on what he has been told? We have no way of knowing; but he has used his knowledge to very good effect to jolt believers off their backsides and into action!
We do not know who wrote “Hebrews”. The way it’s written indicates that the author was Jewish and that he was writing to Jewish Christians. That’s all we can say. His readers were living at a very challenging time. The Christian faith had been outlawed by Rome and Orthodox Jewry was determined to stamp it out. The Roman State and traditional religion had developed a hatred of true Christians that resulted in open persecution from all quarters.
In such a threatening time the great temptation for Jewish Christians was to keep shtoom and “go underground”. The Jewish faith was still a permitted religion in the Roman Empire, so the real temptation was to renounce Jesus and return to the Jewish fold. That way led to safety. It was for many a matter of life and death: death as a Christian or survival as a Jew. Tough call.
The Letter to the Hebrews was written to address Christians faced with that appalling choice: the security of apostasy or the insecurity of following Jesus.
“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 word “Therefore” links Chapter 12 with Chapter 11. What follows is connected with what is past. Hebrews 11 is a list of Old Testament heroes (and heroines) of faith. This great cavalcade of the faithful believers of the past is provided as stimulus to the readers to make them emulate their illustrious forebears. These were men and women who lived by faith. They believed God had called them and they obeyed him. They were far from perfect but they were faithful, and it is that active faith that qualifies them to be included in God’s Hall of Fame.
In order to understand what he means when he writes, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…" we need to picture the scene. We are running the race of faith. The setting is a stadium with terraces on which thousands of spectators sit or stand. These are the “witnesses” referred to. They are witnessing the race and the way we perform. Their testimonies are gathered together to scream encouragement at us in our own faithful living.
The writer calls them a “cloud of witnesses”. That suggests the use of a wrong word! Should it not be “crowd”? Let’s get back to the setting of the scene being played out. Here is the stadium packed with spectators witnessing our performance on the track. As I prepare for the starting signal I can see many of them clearly. If I know those close to me I recognise them. “There is Auntie Sybil in Block A, Row D, Seat 44. I’ll give her a wave!”
But once the starter signals the start, all thought of Auntie Sybil goes and I am focused on just one thing: the finishing tape. If, as I’m running, I try to get a clear view of Auntie I have to take my eyes off the Finish to scan the crowd and the moment I do, I’m passed and I’ve lost. So here’s the thing: if I am focused on the goal – the finishing tape – how do the spectators appear? They are a blur! I know they are there; I hear the roar of their clamorous, encouraging shrieking; but to me they appear hazy, like a cloud.
The teaching is clear. The saints of the Scriptures testify to overcoming their life challenges through vibrant faith. While running the race they focused on God, not on their circumstances. It’s the same for me. Through all the challenges – the trials and tribulations of living by faith, I keep my eyes focused on JESUS. The lives of the saints of the Bible are massively encouraging. Studying them in their life setting teaches and inspires me. But then I have to start doing as they did. This is when knowledge becomes disciplined training. As I begin to apply their training principles to my life, I begin to develop muscular faith. But it is not sufficient simply to know what they did: I have to do it too!
The Lord enters me for ‘junior events’ and as I grow in strength through running in those, he enables me to succeed in greater events to the point where I can take my place in the Championships and GO FOR GOLD!
That progression is called maturity and if I am not faithful in the ‘junior events’ I have no hope of major success as an overcomer.
The writer of Hebrews takes us into the training programme when he continues,
“let us throw off everything that hinders.”
The Greek word for “hinder” means “weight or impediment”. The writer means internal hindrances to fitness. He tells us to get rid of everything internal that will hinder our performance. For an Olympian that means excess weight: he has to fight the flab and build muscle. His internal condition is vital.
Relating this to our faith fitness has clear meaning. I have to deal ruthlessly with iniquity in my life. Those terrible tendencies that have devilish power to defeat me: anger, lust, greed, pride, bitterness, unforgiveness, resentment…and the like. These are the powerful drivers that result in outward sin.
Jesus referred to it in the Sermon on the Mount. He speaks in Matthew 5:21-30 about the appalling sins of murder and adultery. But he reveals the powerful drivers that lead people to commit those sins. They are anger and lust. If I control my anger, I shall never be in danger of killing anyone. If I control lust, I shall never be in danger of having sex with a woman other than Lindy.
These inner drivers have to be dealt with ruthlessly. They are strong and we need unrelenting help to get mastery of them.
- Allow your mind to be saturated with Bible passages that address the particular driver you need to deal with. A good Concordance will help you locate such verses. Or you might get hold of a “Gideon’s Bible” which includes a very useful reference section directing you to particular subjects and providing Bible references that fit.
- “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” So writes Paul in Colossians 3:5. I asked the Lord how to do it and he told me! He said it’s like killing a very virulent weed. You can do it in two ways and it’s wise to do both. First, smother it by depriving it of light and second, apply poison. In regard to the iniquity drivers, we refuse anything that will stimulate them and permit them to grow (For instance, if we seek to put lust to death, we deprive it of all stimulus from TV, films, pornographic literature and places where lust is encouraged. Avoid like the plague.)
Then we apply the thing that iniquity hates most: the truth of God’s word! To the works of the devil, God’s word is poison! This means I must confess with my mouth the truth of the Scripture that fits the situation and then combine that confession with faith in its power to grant me success.
- Seek, through prayer, the wonderful power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen you and fill you with resolve to change.
- Confess your areas of weakness and vulnerability (your personal drivers) to trusted fellow believers so that they can stand with you and keep you up to the mark. This is what James talks about in James 5:16. It’s critical.
When we read in Hebrews 12:1, “and the sin that so easily entangles” we move from internal hindrances to external ones.
Here you are, about to run a Championship race. It’s an important occasion, so you have on your very best toga in order to impress the spectators! The race starts. How far do you get? Are you getting the point?
In Greek and Roman athletics, runners competed naked. Nothing must be allowed to hobble their progress. If you attempted to run a hundred yards in flowing robes, you would fall flat on your nose in just a few paces! How the spectators would roar…this time in derision!
Modesty forbids nude athletics, but the appropriate gear for running is very brief indeed. This is to allow maximum freedom of movement.
In regard to running our faith race, the meaning is obvious. We make it impossible for ourselves when we insist on clinging on to inappropriate habits, possessions, interests, relationships and activities that act as brakes.
Ask the Lord to help you review the things you consider essential to life and gradually make the necessary adjustments. We all need to walk free of anything that hinders our life of faith. Here again, it may be very helpful to enlist the help of trusted believers to keep you free.
“and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Here the writer shows that our particular event is tailor-made for us. The Lord is the Lord! Our lives are in his hands and the race is selected for us and we are selected for the race.
An athlete who is brilliant at 100 metres will not be as effective in a marathon. His whole training programme will be geared to his particular strengths and to achieving his goal. We are built differently and a trainer knows best concerning the event that an athlete is suited for. It is precisely that way with the Lord. He knows the plans he has for us and they are personal to us. His plan for me will be different from his plan for my wife, Lindy. His plans for us will be different from those he is making for our friends – even our children.
So the need is to allow the Holy Spirit (our chief trainer) to lead us as he knows best, but there are general principles that affect all athletes and they must be followed meticulously.
It is to my mind simply wonderful to know that God has marked out the race for me. It is ideal for my strengths, and in those strengths that the Lord is developing in me. I’m going for gold!
“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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
To hit a target you need to look at it and never take your eyes off it. The same goes for athletics. Watch a race from behind the finishing tape as the runners come pounding towards you and you will observe that their eyes are bulging from the sheer effort of keeping focused!
The writer to the Hebrews is determined to keep us focused on Jesus. Indeed his entire letter is devoted to that. The first ten and a half chapters are written to demonstrate the utter supremacy of the Lord Jesus over everything – our Saviour is utterly unique. All the treasured elements of the Jewish faith fade into shadows when compared with the transcending glory of Jesus! The writer is crystal clear on this because the terrible temptation facing his Jewish readers was to trade in their faith in the glorious Light of the world for the shadow world of Jewish religion.
Having laid his foundation, the writer then encourages his readers to hang in there, run well and stay focused. Jesus is the goal: we are running for him and running to him…and by virtue of the fact that we are Spirit filled, running with him!
To “fix our eyes” means to have them locked on. When an eagle swoops on its prey its eyes are locked onto it. The eyes never deviate even for a split second. Mission accomplished.
So the disciple of Jesus who is determined to run the race is locked on to Jesus: his eyes never shift. It may be time to ask a question: WHAT PLACE HAS JESUS IN YOUR LIFE?
It sounds like a superfluous question to ask of a committed Christian, but in truth it is a critical one. Many self confessed believers do not live with Jesus in the centre. They rarely speak of him, they rarely think of him. They may engage in all manner of Christian activities, but what about HIM?
I’m massively challenged when I read that awesome passage in Matthew 7:21-23
“‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, (lit.) you who do lawlessness!”’”
I’ve recently been deeply challenged to be reminded of the words in the Westminster Shorter Catechism,
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.”
To “enjoy him” as used there is in the old English sense of giving him joy. So our chief end is not to enjoy God, but for God to enjoy us! Challenging or what?
To think that the principal reason for my being is that I might glorify the Lord and give him absolute joy moves me beyond words. What a privilege! Imagine – living our life in such a fashion that the Lord is filled with joy over us!
Admittedly the Westminster Shorter Catechism is not Scripture, but it expresses well the tenor of the whole Bible. The First Commandment and the opening statement in the Lord’s Prayer will do for starters!
WHERE IS MY FOCUS? Is it on the Lord of Glory? Food for thought!
Hebrews 12:2 refers to Jesus as “the author and finisher of our faith.”
He is the beginning and the end of faith: the Alpha and Omega.
Faith begins with Jesus – he is the author of it – and it finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus – he is the perfecter of it. All is Jesus! Hallelujah!
The writer goes on to write some of the most sublime words in Scripture:
“Jesus … 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.”
In encouraging his readers to remain faithful to Jesus and not commit apostasy, the unknown writer presents a profound revelation of divine strategy. Here is an amazing truth for us to grasp and apply with rigour because it provides us with an insight into how it was that Jesus was able to come through his crucifixion and into glorious victory. This has resonance for us as we face mounting persecution from both society and organised religion.
How was our Lord able to face the unspeakable agony of his crucifixion? And bear in mind we are talking here of something utterly unique. Not for Jesus the normal torments of physical crucifixion, horrendous though they were. The worst moments of the experience were reserved only for him: he became sin.
This gives the lie to every single representation of his death that we might have seen, either in statuary, painting or even on celluloid. Nothing can possibly portray the unspeakable horror and pain our Saviour endured when the sin of the whole world and all its sickening consequences were piled into and onto his precious mind and body.
The most graphic description that comes closest is not to be found in the gospels but in the Prophecy of Isaiah. This passage in Isaiah 52 and 53 was used by the first Christians as the basis for their evangelism (see for instance Acts 8:26-40). The Servant Song recorded by Isaiah is used in many parts of the New Testament as being a description of Christ’s crucifixion, so we know we are safe in our exposition of it.
In Isaiah 52:14 we read, “…his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.”
Then again, Isaiah 53:2-3, “…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Quite clearly this is describing the time when the sin of the whole world was added to the suffering. No man could testify to seeing it because it was too horrible for God to permit. Had anyone seen it he would have died on the spot. No. These verses describe Jesus as no longer resembling a human being as he hung there. He was just a mass of putrefying flesh, unrecognisable as a human being. Surely this is the moment when our heavenly Father brought heaven’s curtain down to shut out man’s prying eye from the scene. The gospels tell us of the three hours of darkness that fell at midday. Clearly a miracle and clearly God’s deliberate enshrining of the event to himself, so that his eyes only could witness the stark, raw, pitiful cost being paid by his precious Son. These were the most important moments in the history of the universe. No wonder our Father kept them for himself.
Incredibly the same Servant Song speaks of the suffering being inflicted by God.
“…we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him and cause him to suffer.” (Isaiah 53:4, 6, 10)
It would be hard, if not impossible, to express more clearly the sheer appalling horror that Jesus experienced on the cross when he was butchered by the Romans; but to hoist in the almost unthinkable truth that our Father inflicted it all upon Jesus and added to it the inexpressible frightfulness of the world’s sin. Well, words fail me.
Small wonder that John can write in 1 John 3:1,
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!”
The word “lavished” is an understatement, isn’t it!
The question must be asked, how is it possible that Jesus came through that ghastly experience: how come he was even remotely prepared to face it? After all, he, being God the Son, had perfect awareness of all that it would mean! How could he go through with it?
Heaven inspired the writer of Hebrews to show us the answer and it is one of the most glorious lessons we can learn!
“ …who for the joy set before him endured the cross.”
This means it was revelation of the future glory and its attendant joy that strengthened our Lord to endure the cross. It was set before him: presented to him by his Father. He was able to contemplate the future glory and this revelation enabled him to conquer through suffering!
One of the fascinating incidents that occurred at the beginning of the final phase of our Lord’s life took place on Mount Hermon. It was at this point that he began his final journey to Jerusalem to face his Passion. Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. It was witnessed by Peter, James and John and they were completely fazed by the moment. Luke describes it:
“Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:30-31)
The word “departure” is the Greek word EXODOS, the parallel to the Hebrew word EXODUS. It refers to leaving a bad situation and crossing into a glorious one!
Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets – the key parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. So here we have remarkable evidence that it was the promises of the Law and Prophets that were being communicated to Jesus…and those would have embraced prophecies of the suffering of Messiah and also his future glory! It was the Word of God that ministered to Jesus and prepared him. Revelation of the future glory enabled him to face his suffering.
Here, then is mighty truth for you and me! As we contemplate persecution and trouble of various kinds on the ground of our faith in Jesus, we must allow the Lord to fill our minds and memories with his wonderful promises regarding the future glory that will be revealed to us. We have a future and a hope because we are in Christ! Hallelujah!
Filling our minds with revelation of Jesus himself and the glories of heaven are equally vital. Many believers scarcely ever study the Bible to discover what lies ahead of us in the eternal and glorious purposes of Father God: but how foolish we are to neglect such marvels!
We’re going for gold! We shall stand victors in the field. We know who we are and we know whose we are. We’re looking to Jesus, where our faith starts and finishes! His Word and mighty promises will sustain us as we run the race of faith.
DISCIPLINE – A DIRTY WORD!
Hebrews 12:4-13 goes on to speak of the need to submit to the Lord’s discipline. How could an athlete contemplate being successful if he was ill disciplined? It would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?
So there follows a meaty description and exposition of the Lord’s training method. In a word it is “discipline”. Not a popular concept today.
Hebrews 12:6 announces the glad tidings (!) that the Lord disciplines those he loves and punishes (lit: flogs) everyone he accepts as a son.
Here is something that is decidedly politically incorrect! There are those who would dare to say that this makes God guilty of child abuse! Flogging is seen as barbaric and we all understand why. There is so much unspeakable cruelty being inflicted on children by evil parents that the whole notion of physical correction has been outlawed.
But wait a moment. God is not evil, he is good. So how can a good God inflict pain on his children? The answer may be unacceptable to many, but it is obvious. He does it for our good.
I rejoice at those times in my life when my heavenly Father has flogged me…even though it has hurt. But I know he has done it only because he had to in order to keep me in his will. There was no other way. If there had been, my Father would have taken it. My happiness and joy is dependent upon my being in the centre of his will and he loves me so much that he will even inflict pain on me if he knows it is the only way to achieve my highest good.
On a fairly trivial note I recall visiting a gymnasium our son, Simon, was running. He was showing me around and I was frankly shocked to see the pain shown on the faces of many of those in training. There were many machines there that were designed to build muscle and these guys were committed to seeing their endeavours matched with success! Their faces told all: their grunts and grimaces were not expressions of deep joy!
But Simon explained that the process is revealing. Vigorous training tears muscle. During the subsequent period of rest, the muscle repairs itself as blood is pumped into it by the heart. The effect of this is to enlarge the muscle and make it stronger. So for all the agony involved in training, the end result is fitness and strength. I found that very interesting!
Mind you, I didn’t sign up! Coward!
As the End Times unfold and the horrors predicted by Jesus in passages like Matthew 24 become reality, we shall experience the Father’s discipline. It will feel bad: it will hurt. But we have the certain knowledge that such painful tearing is making us strong.
In order to bring the highest glory to his dear Son, Father had to make him suffer. That’s tough justice on Jesus, but just look at him now!
“The highest place that heaven affords
is his, and his by right:
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords
and heaven’s eternal light!”