A Heavenly Olympic Game (Heb 12:1-2)
[A Sermon Note]
Last summer, London hosted the 30th Summer Olympic Games. In this game, we admired the athletes’ labor and endurance in their games. We were amazed how a person could run so fast, and jump too high. Modern day Olympic games were adopted from ancient Greek games. Though many of the games in the modern Olympics were not existed in the ancient Greek games, but there are still many commons in these games, such as, the stadium, athletes, referees, and rewards.
Here in Hebrews 12:1-2, we can see there is also a heavenly Olympic game, as it is written:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (ESV)
Bear in your mind that the book of Hebrews was written to the early Jewish converts, who have to endure great persecutions and pressures from their own Jewish community, which is caused by their faith in the risen Jesus. In the ancient world, especially in the Jewish world, community life is more important than individuals, since it was the community makes the identity of one individual (in other words, you will lose your social identity by leaving your community: you are no longer you). We can imagine, how hard their life would be, since these Jewish Christians had been rejected by their local community, lost their jobs, and even lost their properties. As a result, these Jewish Christians were forced and thinking to go back to the old Judaism, that is to continue following the laws of the rabbis, from which they had been released by Jesus the Christ. Here in the book of Hebrews, our author, the apostle examines the system and beliefs of Judaism, and made a conclusion from it: that since Jesus is the Messiah, the founder of salvation (2:10), and Jesus is greater than all things Judaism believes (angels, Moses, and priests), then, apart from Jesus there is no other salvation, and if you go back to your Judaism, you will have no salvation at all.
As our author continues his argument, here, in chapter twelve, after showing the Jewish patriarch’s examples of faith in Jesus, our author pictures a “heavenly Olympic game,” encouraging his recipients, that they shall learn from their forefathers, endure the present sufferings, and keep hold of their faith in Jesus the Messiah, just like athletes running hardly in a heaven-bond race.
I. First of all, the author of Hebrews tells us that we have a mighty stadium in our heavenly “Olympic Game,” as it is written in verse 1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”
The phrase “cloud of witnesses” is being used quite often in our Christian circles. Maybe not these days, but if you go to a theological library, you may find Christians in the past love to use “cloud of witnesses” as a title to their collections of Christian testimonies. For Christians today, we are so unfamiliar with such beautiful phrase, just as we are unfamiliar with the two-edged sword, the Bible. So, let us ask: What does it mean?
In the ancient Greek, the word witnesses means, “people who testifies by certain actions.” And this word is the origin of our English word “martyr.” Now, if you use the word “martyrs” to replace “witnesses” here in this verse, then it become more clear: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of martyrs.” Throughout the two-thousand-year history of the church of Jesus Christ, we have many Christians who have been persecuted by the government, religious authorities, and their communities. The reason of their persecution was simple: because they believe Jesus is the Christ. And because of their strong faith in Jesus Christ, they were mocked, beaten, and even put to death. Their stories had been recorded by later church historians, and we read and admire their faith, as we also have to testify our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through our works and actions in daily lives.
Here is one of the reasons why Christians have to study history, especially church history. We are so ignorant about the past. We can learn from the examples of Christians in the past, and learn God’s faithfulness toward his believers throughout the history. As the author recounted the faith of the patriarchs in the book of Hebrews, we shall also know that the church of Jesus Christ is not build on a single stone, but is on the stones of faithful witnesses to the chief stone, which is Jesus Christ.
Every Christian has to know and remember: We are all witnesses to the Lord Jesus, as many as clouds, and the Lord Jesus never forgets his believers. And in the sense of his Kingdom, it is like a stadium, in which we the athletes are being surrounded by such great numbers of faithful Christian witnesses. Have you seen such great stadium?
II. Secondly, being put in such great stadium, Christians are the athletes in this heavenly “Olympic Game,” as we read:
let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us with endurance the race that is set before us…
Here the text clearly teaches us, that all followers of Jesus the Christ are in a spiritual running race. And such race is in a long distance, even longer than a marathon.
In Toronto, sometimes in the weekends, there are running races organized by some charities. Usually you will see people run with thin clothes. It makes sense in the summer time, since thin cloth can help you to release sweat, and make you feel cooler. But as we know that these runners also wear such kind of thin cloth in wintertime. Don’t they feel cold? Why they do so? From a scientific perspective, when we run, the air surround us will create a resistance against our body, and the more you wear, the stronger resistance will be created, and such strong resistance will slow you down and cost you more energy. We see from the London Olympic games, that all athletes, especially those in running games, wear clothes made with thin and smooth fabrics. Two thousand years, the ancient Roman athletes did not have today’s technology, thus, if the runners want to reduce the resistance, they probably have to run naked. And it sounds weird: they streak!
In fact, our text here requires us to run naked in the spiritual running race, as it is written, “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” The “weight” and “sin” generalize the troubles these Jewish Christians had, and without naming any of them, our author encourages his weak brothers to forget the burdens in this world, and the sins of the flesh. Rather, Christians have to run without burdens, desire, lust, thinking of the world, and seek not the glory of one-self, but lay these burdens aside, as you are taking off your clothes, and streak. Since this is a long-distance marathon, this “taking off” action shall be taken right from your spiritual birth, till your last breath, and you have to run with endurance. In this running race, one shall not mind how the others see them. For the runners in Toronto, they do not care how we see their fashion, since their eyes are upon the goal. It is the same to us Christians, who with no mind of the others’ views, and by endurance of troubles and sufferings of the world, we shall set our eyes upon the reward!
So, brothers and sisters, are you running this long-distance marathon? Have you take off your worldly burdens? Are you running with endurance?
III. In this heavenly “Olympic Game,” we have a referee and a reward:
Verse 2, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
In London’s Olympic games, we see that every athletes run for their reward, which is the gold. And every athlete run toward the final destination, where their referees are, who will grant them the reward. For them, they know clearly, once they are on the track, they cannot stop, nor return, for so doing, they will receive nothing at all. In their mind, they have to endure every kind of suffering, but to run with all their strength toward the goal.
In our Christian life that is in this heavenly “Olympic Game” we also have a goal and direction, that is set before us (v1), Jesus the Christ. The author of Hebrews commands us, “Looking to Jesus,” who is our founder and perfecter of faith. By what means we say Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith? Look to the cross on Calvary. We all know that at the Day of Judgment, which is the end of the days, Jesus who is the Son of God, and Son of man, will come to judge the live and the dead. This Judge Jesus is like a referee in a game who judges justly. Moreover, Jesus the Judge is greater than a referee, since he had experienced the race by himself at first, long before all his believers participate in this heavenly Olympic game. And as verse 2 tells us, Jesus ran ahead of us for the “joy that was set before him.” Thus, we know it is possible to finish this marathon with reward, since Jesus had endured the suffering and even death on the cross at Calvary!
Now, look, the cross at Calvary shows how this Jesus ran for us. He is the Son of God, who is God, yet for our sake, came to this world of sinners. He called people to repent, but no one answered. He performed great miracles, but no one cared. He cried with loud voice in the street, “My Father love you, leave you slave master, and come to me!” Finally, the innocent one carried the cursed cross to Calvary, and was killed on it. Sinners: Don’t you know you the cross Jesus carried is yours? On that cross, Jesus endured pain and shame, not only from his body, also from his spirit. Because the amount of sins he carried for us, he Father turned his face away! And he cried, “It is finished!” It is finished. Jesus’ mission is finished, and sin’s dominion is finished!
Christians: look at yourself, where is your dirty garment? Where is your accuser? Where is your sin? Where is your punishment? It is finished! This Jesus became our perfect and final atonement, and by covering us with his own blood we are made pure and innocent. And death is just the beginning, three days later, Jesus conquered and rise from his death, so that every Christian now have a goal in our lives. As he is now sitting on the right hand of his Father, being the best example of ours, the referee himself is calling us to run for that day, when he will make you and I perfect, as we were first created.
Brothers and sister, run now, run to Jesus, for a Crown of life is set before you. Though tiredness may slow you down, but look to Jesus, you shall renew your strength in him, and see your crown of life is waiting for you. Carry up, my friends! Run, for you are not far from the end! When you come to the end, finish your race, your master and the referee, whose name is Jesus will come and grant you the victorious crown of life, and gently say to you, “Well done, my faithful servant!”
My friends, are you one of Christ’s athletes? I pray you may admire and desire for this marathon. Don’t you want to be an athlete, to receive that glory from Jesus the Messiah? All you sins can be forgiven, and you will be perfect. Isn’t your heart being moved? Don’t stay there! Come to Jesus, the one who died for you, and who will make you his own!
Christians: Are you feeling tired and weary? Are you stopping growing? Are you being troubled by the worldly burdens? Give an ear, hear your Master is calling: stop look around, turn your eyes to Jesus, and run! Know that he is faithful, and his grace is sufficient! Cast off all your burdens and sin, looking to Jesus, and run with endurance!