Sunday, September 16, 2012

Steadfast Fortitude

International Sunday School Lesson
Study Notes

Lesson Text: Hebrews 12:1-11
Lesson Title: Steadfast Fortitude

Introduction

The first 10 chapters of Hebrews presents a strong case for understanding Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the types, shadows, prophecies and expectations of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews holds the Old Testament and its system of sacrifice and worship in high regard but makes it clear that since the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, it is time to move away from the shadows to the substance. While Hebrews gives us one of the most exalted pictures of Christ anywhere in the Bible, the author’s primary purpose was not to just magnify the Lord. The truth is that once the author has established the fact that everything now centers on Jesus Christ, he exhorts his readers to respond and act in the light of that truth. Hebrews 11 and 12 is the first step in that direction.

The opening verses of today’s lesson are some of the most powerful words of exhortation in all of Scripture. The first three verses of chapter 12 tie into the theme of Hebrews 11 and are actually a climax to chapter 11.  Hebrews 12 compares the successful completion of a life of faith to the triumphant victory of a race witnessed by those faithful believers listed in Hebrews 11. Also, the author exhorts believers to fix our eyes on Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God and who is the perfect example of steadfast fortitude. The thrust of these opening verses are a reminder that our sin, our troubles, and our frustrations are nothing but hindrances in life that hold us back and impede our spiritual progress. We are called to throw it all off and maintain a steadfast fortitude in the face of every opposition. What a wonderful and encouraging invitation to steadfast fortitude!

Steadfast Fortitude and Inspiration (Hebrews 12:1a)

Webster defines fortitude as “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.” Most scholars past and present hold to the position that Hebrews was written to primarily Hebrew Christians faced with the temptation of forsaking Christianity so return to Judaism. It is quite clear from the text itself that they were enduring danger and heavy persecution, perhaps from the Roman government. That along with other things may have fueled some disappointment and questions in their heart and mind. Thus, the author issues the call all throughout this epistle, “Don’t go back, and press on!” But how could they find courage to press on? Where did these newly converted Christians find the strength and courage to remain faithful? The answers are in today’s lesson.

Verse 1a

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses”

The word “Wherefore” is said by Dr. A.T. Robertson to be “a conclusion of emphasis.” It refers back not only to the thought which immediately precedes it, but includes the entire evidence of the epistle.

The “cloud of witnesses” are all those faithful saints listed in Hebrews 11. “Cloud” is used here only in the New Testament and means “a great mass of clouds.” The metaphor is suggestive of a vast arena surrounded by tier upon tier of seats rising up as a cloud. The author calls upon these young Hebrew believers to look back to those who demonstrated steadfast fortitude of faith in their life. The word “witnesses” is martus, our English word “martyr.” Many of the individual in Hebrews 11 were martyrs in the faith. The author views these “witnesses” not as mere spectators, but rather those who out of their own experience can testify to the keeping power of God through all their trials. Also, these “witnesses” are not looking down on us cheering us on. The text indicates we are to look at them as examples. We aren’t running the Christian race to please them but only looking to them as examples that steadfast fortitude is real.

Steadfast Fortitude and Instruction (v.1b-4)

Verse 1b

“…let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us”

The “cloud of witnesses” had a course to run, and they ran it well until the end. “Run” is the Greek word trecho, meaning “to spend one’s strength in running a prescribed course.” The “race” pictured here by the author is that of a relay race. Those who have run have passed on to us the redemptive purpose of God which must be carried forward in our generation, at the end of which we, in turn, shall pass it on to others. This thought is in keeping with the theme of this epistle. Don’t go back, press on.

In order to press on we are urged to “lay aside every weight…” Using the figure of an athletic contest, each believer is to “lay aside” or put off all hindrances in order to run efficiently. “Weight” means “mass, bulk, or burden.” This “weight” was often harmless and innocent, yet it hindered progress. A victorious runner refuses certain things in life in order to be swift and sleek. The phrase “lay aside every weight” also refers to an arrogant confidence that could ultimately hinder progress and victory. All of this “weight” or “bulky stuff” must be “laid aside” if steadfast courage is to be maintained.

“And the sin which doth so easily beset us” is difficult to interpret because the word “beset” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Commenting on this phrase, Doctor Stephen F. Olford writes, “There are those who hold that the sin here is a reference to our sinful natures. Others teach that it is the particular sin into which the weights may drag us down. Or, again, it may be the sin of unbelief, for that is the burden of the writer in the preceding chapters of this epistle in contrast to the theme of the eleventh chapter, where faith is set forth as the secret of victory in life’s long race. Without doubt, there is an element of truth in each of these views. How easily unbelief can trip us up and cause us to lose the race! Let us be on our guard against it.”

While it may be difficult to properly identify what “the sin” is, the message is not difficult. We are all susceptible to sin. The phrase suggests the easiness with which sin stands around us and can entangle us. We ought to be aware of our weakness, temperament, and our environment.

“And let us run with patience the race that is set before us” conveys the thought that the “race” is one of agony, struggle, and exertion.” The teaching is clear: the “race set before us” demands all that we have. Genuine biblical faith is not a momentary burst of emotion or an occasional “spiritual pick me up” a few times a year. It is a settled course of life which consistently carries us around the first lap, the second, the third, and so on, until we one day cross the finish line. It is the disciplined life of faith empowered by the courage of God’s grace that wins!

Verse 2

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

After an exhortation to his readers to “see” or look back at the heroes of faith who successfully run the race of faith, the writer now instructs us to look away to Jesus. The word “looking” means “looking away from all else.” Taken together with the “cloud of witnesses” the thought seems to be that we are to occasionally glance at those in Hebrews 11 but continually gaze upon “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” We certainly receive encouragement and inspiration for our life from others, but we only imitate One, Jesus. We dare not imitate Abel or we shall make the mistakes as he did. We can’t live as Noah or we may end up drunk. We can’t imitate Moses or we might lose our temper and kill someone. And we can’t imitate each other or God knows what we might do. Rather, we are exhorted to “look away unto Jesus.”

Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” “Author” is archegos meaning “leader.” Christ is the pioneer of our faith. He has blazed the trail for us. He is also the “finisher” of our faith. “Finisher” is teleiotes meaning “perfecter.” Only in Jesus can faith be fully experienced and realized. If you look at yourself your faith will soon be discouraged. If you look at your circumstances your faith will so be defeated. If you look at others your faith will be disillusioned. But center your faith on Jesus Christ and all is well. There is no breakdown in Him. He above all others has been down this course. He ran the race when things were up and when things were down. He ran the race with there were companions and when they all forsook Him and fled.

“Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The Lord Jesus ran His race because of the “joy” of doing the Father’s will and of bringing many souls to salvation. Christ “endured the cross.” He “remained under the burden” of the cross and did not flee from it. He “despised the shame” means he was not deterred from doing the Father’s will because of the disgrace of dying on a cross. The writer’s point for his readers is to think about whatever we are facing and then remember what Christ faced. No runner in any race ever had such terrible experiences as Christ. Yet, He kept on running. And when He finished “he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” His race was run. His work was finished. And again, His “joy” was no that His race was run or that His work was done. His “joy” was in the fact that in so doing he was perfectly obedient to the will of God (John 5:30; 17:4-6).

Commenting on this verse, J. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China writes, “Only by thinking of all that Jesus is, and all He is for us: His life, His work, He, Himself, as revealed to us in the Word, to be the subject of our constant thoughts. Not a striving to have faith, but a looking off to the Faithful One is all we need; a resting in the Loved One entirely, for time and eternity.”

Verse 3

“For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.”

Because of all Christ accomplished we are urged to “consider him.” “Consider” is the Greek word analogizomai, and means “to think it over, ponder, and examine him completely and from all angles.” “Contradiction of sinners against himself” refers to the hostile treatment in both word and deed that Jesus received from the world. This could possibly be a much needed encouragement for these young Hebrew believers who were on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse for their new found faith. Thus, the warning, “lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” was given to encourage the readers to not grow “weary” or fatigued and worn out which would result in “fainting” or collapsing in the race.

The next time the devil tempts you to quit, “consider” Jesus. The next time your employer makes your day difficult, “consider” Jesus. The next time your employees won’t work, “consider” Jesus. The next time you’re lied about, “consider” Jesus. The next time you fail to do the Father’s will, “consider” Jesus.

Steadfast Fortitude and the Implications (Hebrews 12:4-11)

At this point it is clear that the author moves from the athletic metaphor in the first 3 verses to a focus on what all of this implies. And the implication is that of suffering. The authors change in tone is designed to help his audience view their sufferings in the proper perspective. Their suffering is discipline from the Father. Believers should be encouraged by the discipline we face. Those hardships are a reminder that the things of this earth that make us content and comfortable are not the things that will last for eternity. Discipline sanctifies us and results in God’s holiness. We are set apart from this world, and we become participants in the race that ends at the feet of Christ.

Verse 4

“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.”

The “cloud of witnesses” and “Jesus” Himself, had stood face to face with the powers of evil. Tempted though they were to drop out of the race and not fulfill God’s purpose and plan, still the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 remained faithful with steadfast fortitude. But these newly converted Hebrew believers to whom Hebrews is written “have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” The idea of “resisted unto blood” carries the picture of troops lined up face to face for battle. Although these Hebrew Christians had suffered much already (Hebrews 10:32), none of them had paid with their lives or endured what the “witnesses” had endured or suffered as Jesus. In other words, they had not yet been in the thick of it as had the “witnesses” and “Jesus.” So they must glance from time to time at the “witnesses” and gaze continually upon Jesus when suffering and discipline came.

Verse 5

“And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:”

This exhortation is from Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” Both writers are explaining that the “chastening of the Lord” and the sufferings which Christians go through are a part of the larger context of God’s dealings with His children. It seems that some had already “forgotten the exhortation” or what the Bible said in Proverbs 3:11-12 concerning God’s dealing with His children. It is obvious that many professing Christians have “forgotten” the biblical teaching on faith and God’s chastening of His children.

The key word in Hebrews 12:5-11 is the word “chastening” (v.5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11). The Greek word is paideia and was used in the Greek world referring to the upbringing and handling of a minor child. It included all parts of raising a child such as discipline, teaching, and correction. The Christian life of faith is a race but it is also a relationship. God is our Father and we are His “children.” God uses discipline, chastisement, and suffering as a means of correcting His “children” and helping us to mature, avoid sin, and grow in grace.

“Despise not” means “don’t take it lightly.” We should not be surprised that our loving Father allows, yes even causes suffering, chastisement and hardships to come our way as believers. This biblical truth is certainly rejected by the preachers of the health and wealth gospel who preach and teach that any suffering or deficiency in your life is a lack of faith. Did Enoch, Noah and Abraham go through what they went through because of lack of faith? Was Sarah unable to bear a child because of lack of faith? The answer is no. Sometimes God orchestrates suffering and hard times to increase our faith and help us to grow.

Not everything bad that happens to us in life is a result of sin. However, there are times when the “chastening of the Lord” is a result of our sin. And when we are “rebuked of him” because of our sin, we are not to “faint.” “Rebuked” means “convicted and brought to light.” When God brings to light our sin or our spiritual need through His “chastening” we are not to “faint” or despair or go back. We should recognize that God is in ultimate control of all things, and that He uses even our discipline and chastisement for His good and our growth.

Verse 6

“For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”

It is sometimes challenging to believe “…that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). It is sometimes challenging to believe “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive see, and was delivered of a child when she was past age…” (Hebrews 11:11). It is also challenging at times to sing, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar.” However, we know and believe by faith that all of that is real. But the real question is this, “Can you believe by faith that God loves you when He is chastening you?”

To know “for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” is a much needed reminder. We cannot prove this to anyone or even ourselves. We must believe it by faith. Some things God takes us through and some things He causes to happen in our life hurts. Yes, God intentionally causes pain in our lives through the form of chastening and discipline. Why? He loves us. The Greek word for “loveth” is agapao, God’s kind of love. There is no reason to forget, faint, or despise what God is doing in your life because he “loves” you.

“Scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” refers to “flogging with a whip.” It was a severe and painful way to discipline and correct. The word is used here figuratively of God’s chastening of His children. The point is that proper training must include correction of faulty behavior. When the need of discipline and correction is great in our lives God’s punishment will be equal to the need. “Whom he receiveth” refers to “those who have placed their faith in Christ.” Only those who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ are His children. We are disciplined because we are His children.

Verse 7

“If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”

“If” means “since.” Since the Hebrew believers were being disciplined they needed to know that it was evidence that they truly belonged to God. “God dealeth with you as son” is a reminder that God deals differently with His children than the world. Judgment upon the wicked honors God’s law and His righteous government which His chastening hand on His children shows His love.

“Chastening” while from the same root word “chastening” in verse 5, is used in a slightly different way. In verse 5 it referred primarily to the process of disciplining and here in verse 7 it refers to the end or object in view. It always helps to see the end result in discipline if at all possible.

The writer again illustrates his point from the parental human relationship when he asked, “for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” This is an interesting question. Any “son” or child who has a “father” who does not discipline them is a child that is unloved. It is viewed as intellectual and open minded today to not discipline children but actually it is proof of no love. To allow your children to go undisciplined is to prove you do not care about their physical or eternal condition. When a “father” doesn’t discipline his child he reveals something significant about his character. He reveals his lack of love, maturity, and integrity. No earthly father in his right mind who cares one ounce about a child he has brought into this world would allow that child to go undisciplined.

Verse 8

“But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.”

A “bastard” is “one born out of wedlock and one who has no legal father.” In other words, a “bastard” is one who has no one willing to take responsibility for their training and discipline. To the immature and politically correct people this may seem like a happy arrangement. But the end results are terrible and usually end up in hell.

The truth of this verse in plain language is that any person who claims to be a Christian and can practice sin, never read their Bible, never pray, and never have the intervening hand of God to convict them and correct them are not truly born again. They are “bastards.” They are people without a spiritual Father to nurture them, love them, and raise them. Our churches are full of “bastards” waiting for the anti-Christ. What other possible explanation is there for people who profess to be saved by grace yet are never chastened for their sin? We should pity these people and pray for their salvation.

Verse 9

“Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”

It is only the loved and disciplined child who respects his “father.” “Fathers of our flesh” is speaking of the male who is the head of the home and the one primarily responsible for discipline during the childhood years. That is God’s design (Proverbs 13:24). Fathers today may attempt to delegate that responsibility to someone else but will be ultimately held accountable by God. “Fathers” are responsible for discipline, not a village, not a school system, and not grandparents.

Only a “father” who fulfills his God-given role is worthy of “reverence.” Children will respect a “father” who lovingly, biblically, and faithfully disciplines them. The surest way for a “father” to lose, or never gain the respect of his children is to never correct or punish them. Why is it that so many children have little or no respect for their “father?”

“Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live” conveys the thought that if we respect our earthly fathers for their faithful and loving discipline we should “much rather” or to a greater degree “be in subjection unto the Father of spirits.” The phrase “Father of spirits” is in contrast to our earthly fathers. “Live” means we are sharing the life of God through His Son, proved by His loving discipline for us just a child “lives” and shares the life of his earthly father proved by his loving discipline and correction.

Verse 10

“For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.”

This verse contrasts the discipline of earthly parents with that of the Lord and His children. Earthly parents referred to as “they,” only “chastened us” for a “few days.” And they did so “after their pleasure.” The words “after their pleasure” do not mean they got enjoyment out of harsh discipline. The idea is that they disciplined us as best they knew how which was never perfect. That’s part of the reason that a parent’s discipline does not last an entire lifetime. However, “he,” the Lord, “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness” has perfect discipline that continues throughout our entire lives and results in being like Jesus.

God always disciplines in perfect measure with what is “profitable,” and His methods are always wise. His goal is to make us holy which is the basic characteristic of our heavenly Father (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Verse 11

“Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

Since we are human, “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous.” All discipline, whether inflicted by our human fathers or by God, is unpleasant while it is in progress. The Bible does not teach that we must enjoy the experience of discipline, only its outcome.

“Nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” It is only “afterward” that they real fruits and benefits of suffering, discipline, and chastening are seen. The product produced is called “the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” “Peaceable” is a beautiful word in contrast to the harshness of the discipline or suffering experienced by the child of God. The “righteousness” produced by all of the discipline and suffering of life is a right standing with God that could have never resulted had we avoided the suffering and discipline.

It is God’s work that enables the branches to bear more fruit (John 15:2). God’s discipline is always aimed at greater, more precious fruit.

“Those who have been exercised thereby” are those who have regarded and accepted God’s discipline in the right way. “Exercised” is our English word “gymnasium.” Once again the writer takes us back to an athletic metaphor. Those who have allowed chastening, correction, suffering and discipline to do its work will ultimately be fruitful.

Conclusion

There are some in Christianity today who refuse to admit the fact that God chastens His children and allows them to suffer. The life of steadfast fortitude comes from a life of faith that is chastened when we fail to believe God, exposed to suffering to encourage trust in God, and gently but intentionally led by the hand of God. All of this is designed because the Lord has something in mind.

Nothing makes less sense than to be in a race where you have no desire to win. And it also doesn’t make sense to be in a race where you desire to win but you allow all sort of things to hinder you and weigh you down. Continuing on in this Christian race demands steadfast fortitude and that comes by looking back, looking above, and looking at God’s purpose in what is taking place in your life right now. Maybe there’s a relationship that needs to change in your life, a sin that needs to be confessed, or a pattern of life that needs to be added or removed. If the suffering and discipline you are experiencing today is difficult, don’t forget the message of verses 5-11.

Ask the Lord for wisdom today to help you identify and lay aside anything that is holding you back spiritually. And ask the Lord to help you not forget that He loves you and His love is proved by His chastisement and loving discipline.

Amen.

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