Surrounded By A Flock Of Witnesses
November 4, 2007
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
1. The first holy day in November is "[All] Saints' Day." In many churches a memorial service for those at eternal rest is observed. In our church we publish the names of those already called forth and we dedicate the worship service in memory of these persons.
2. Every year, before the worship service, the task of adding the new names to the name register is performed. When a name is added for the first time, what [I] always think is I too will one day be added to this group of persons. Of course, this doesn't just apply to me. For now we are on the side of those who see the list of names, but we all will find ourselves on the same side as them one day. Thus the worship we offer up on this side of things is just for a limited period. Therefore, during the memorial service held each year, it is important to recall those who have been called [to heaven], and while we look at this name register, it is even more important to recall that we too will soon finish our own lives on this earth.
3. Once a man who had lost his beloved wife greeted those who attended the funeral service saying, "My wife finished out her life in accordance with the will of God. As you all remember my wife's death, I would have you remember your own lives with your own respective endings." Lives have endings -- as we are coming face to face with this very truth again, the biblical words which were read today will also very likely become urgent upon our hearts. The following words were read just ago. "In conclusion, since we too are surrounded in this way by a flock of countless witnesses, shall we not throw off every heavy burden and entangling sin and patiently run to the finish the race to which we've been appointed?," (12:1). During this year's memorial service for the departed, as we come face to face with our lives with our own endings, I would like for us to grab a firm hold of acceptance of this message as the word of God given to us.
The Race To Which We've Been Appointed
4. The scripture says in this passage, "surrounded by a flock of countless witnesses." The image used here is that of a stadium for races. Believers during ancient times would observe the games and races. They used to run the same way [we do]. They ran to the end. These same people are observing us run. Therefore, the scripture gives the following exhortation, "Shall we not run patiently to the finish as well?"
5. The Bible expresses the lives we're supposed to finish running as "the race to which we've been appointed." A person certainly does have a race to which he or she has been appointed, [a contest] not chosen by the person for himself or herself. Though the text says "a contest," it is not a competition with others. Other people do have their own race they are supposed to run. "The race to which" they "have been appointed" belongs to them alone and no one can take another person's place. Our whole lives can be defined like that.
6. In any event, contests have a goal. Contests end at goals. When one loses sight of the goal, no matter how long one has run, it can all come to naught. Where [do we find] THE goal? THE goal is the kingdom of God. If we go by the expression used in The Epistle To The Hebrews, it is [our] "home in heaven." It is the rest God gives us. It is precisely because we are heading for THE goal that the start also has meaning. It is precisely because we are heading for THE goal that even hard labor with its process has meaning. It is precisely because we are heading for THE goal that we obtain joy even during hard labor. It is precisely because we are heading for THE goal that though we fall and fall again, we get up and run. We must not forget that we are heading for THE goal.
Throw Off Every Heavy Burden And Entangling Sin
7. The Bible gives two exhortations for the time when one is running this race that one is supposed to run. The first is that we "throw off every heavy burden and entangling sin." When running towards a long distance goal, a person does not run wearing some kind of spacesuit or put on different mismatched things to slow one down. Yet, there are way too many folks who do that when it comes to the race of life. Modern people are surrounded by various things that capture one's attention. In addition, they live feeling like they need these many things. Claiming we need this and we need that, we put [them] on ourselves and think as if that's a rich life. But, in fact, the more complex one's lifestyle is, the greater the increase there will be in different worries, unnecessary hardships, and heavy burdens, which one should not even be bearing. While [having to] deal with [all] that, we won't be able to run our appointed race that we're supposed to run.
8. That's a fact, and that's not all. The scripture says, "throw off entangling sin." This is an even more serious issue. When something is tangled in your foot, you can't run that way. Likewise, when you are trying to run towards a goal with faith, there are things that will entangle one's feet. That would be "sin." By the way, it calls it "sin" here, but what was in their thinking here even more specifically? Actually, when The Epistle To The Hebrews says "sin," a certain figure is put into one's mind with that. It was given in the epistle before here. It is the figure of these Israelites back before when they had been led out from Egypt and had traveled the wilderness.
9. The Israelites, who were slaves, were set free by God and led out from Egypt. They left Egypt triumphantly and with great joy. They gave thanks to God, and they walked giving praises for the mighty power of God. But, during the wilderness journey as they came face to face with various hardships and suffering, they instantly began to murmur. They flat-out complained. They began to say, "Is the Lord really among us?" They did not trust in the Lord, but hardened their hearts against him. They opposed the Lord. That's the kind of figure that is being depicted where it says, "entangling sin."
10. As a matter of fact, this was a very familiar issue for the readers who first received this epistle. That is to say because living in reality with faith has never been an easy thing to do. More than a few persecutions had already come and gone. Then some more, a big persecution was being predicted. Trials would assail them time and again. When they looked at the real world in which they were placed, it was always possible for complaining, hardening one's heart, questioning whether the Lord was really there, and ending up separated from the living God to take place.
11. And no it's not just the times when we're in the storms like that either. When peaceful times are peaceful times and even when we had just an unpleasant experience or a sleight trip, people will begin to make a fuss. Dissatisfaction, discontent, and defiant hearts will coil around one's feet. In that sense, we all probably have tons of things that come to mind regarding this "entangling sin," don't we? So then it is clear that if these sins entwine around one's feet, then a person cannot walk any more. Therefore, in order to run, it is important that a person "throws off entangling sin." That's right. With our own hands we must take up the challenge to throw off murmuring against God.
12. Also, another exhortation is given [to us] so that we can put this [challenge] into practice. Shall we not patiently run to the end? How do we do that? "While looking at Jesus the starter and the finisher of the faith," (verse two). We run focusing our eyes on this Jesus, indeed "Jesus the starter and the finisher of the faith," who "gave up the joy which was right in front of him and did not spare himself but suffered death on the cross, and then sat on the right side of God's throne."
13. Christ is the one who showed us what it truly means "to live." He is the one who taught us what it means to run. Also, he is both the starter and the finisher of our faith. By saying "the starter" it also means "the leader, the pacemaker, the vanguard." He is running in front of us and leads us to the goal. Believers will lose their running power and lose their true hope and joy when they take their eyes off Christ. "While looking at Jesus." This is continuous. It is not something temporary. The faith life is continuous. We live by always fixing our eyes on Jesus.
As Fatherly Training
14. And then the Bible begins to make another point about the kind of meaning that the difficulties which block our way and the distresses that befall us have. As we've already seen, hardships instigate the sin that causes our hearts to harden against God and to be defiant. In that sense, hardships become a temptation to sin. But, difficulty and distress amount to more than having just a negative implication. Indeed, much more than that, they have a major and positive meaning in our whole lives. "As for you [all], endure this as tempering and hardening. God is treating you as his child. What, is there a child that is not under disciplined training!? Supposing that [you] have not received the hardening which everyone receives, then, because of that, you would be an illegitimate child, you would not be a true child [of his]," (verses seven and eight).
15. Even though experiencing the same suffering, people can be divided into two camps. They can be divided into the people who turn to God and the people who turn their backs to God. Hardships in and of themselves do not determine one's life. One's attitude towards God determines one's life. Hardships themselves do not bring sorrow. That's not [how it works], rather the heart resistant to God, the dissatisfaction and self-pity that come out of that, the lack of faith in God and sin, these things make a person feel sorrow. The fact that we have suffering and difficulties does not mean that we have been forsaken by God. It does not mean that God has lost his love for us. God is unchanging and a father filled with passionate love. God the Father loves us. He treats us with love as his son or daughter.
16. When we experience training from God the Father, we will find that there is a fatherly purpose behind it. The scripture gives us a contrast between fathers on earth and God by giving the following statement. "Fathers in the flesh have for a while disciplined us as they so deemed, but the father in the spirit disciplines us with the purpose of causing us to have a part in his own holiness so that it leads to our benefit. As a rule, this matter of discipline is not considered to be joyous at the present moment, but is sorrowful, but later on for those disciplined thereby it will cause fruit filled with the peace called righteousness," (verses ten and eleven).
17. The purpose of God is to purify us from sin and that we come to yield forth a fruit that is filled with peace. "The peace (shalom)" of which the Bible speaks expresses the condition in which a person is with God and overflows with life. That is not only on this earth, but is brought forth for ever, and in order to cause that kind of fruit, God will give training. If we were to suppose that God ignores us when we depart from him, sin, and yield forth only the fruits of sin, then that would indeed be a dreadful judgment. But, God does not ignore and leave us in such a state. God purifies us. God makes us realize what is important and what's not important. In this way then, God is working on us and grants unto us his holiness, produces fruit filled with peace, and makes preparations for the kingdom of God. God certainly does treat us as his sons and daughters.