Don’t Despair on Heartbreak Hill. Run with Endurance.

Don’t Despair on Heartbreak Hill. Run with Endurance. April 21, 2018

Boston Marathon Finish Line, 1910

I have heard reports of how difficult it is to run Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon. (Refer to “Just How Bad Is Heartbreak Hill?”) Appearing at mile 20, it comes late in the race. Runners need to prepare well for this leg of the journey so they can make it the rest of the way. While the writer of Hebrews does not have Boston’s Heartbreak Hill in mind, the author is thinking about a race involving a grueling obstacle course filled with suffering and persecution (See Hebrews 12:1-4). In fact, the writer speaks of two mountains—Sinai and Zion (Hebrews 12:20-22). This pastoral leader encourages his readers not to “grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3; ESV) and to “lift” up “drooping hands”, “strengthen…weak knees,” and “make straight paths for” their “feet” (Hebrews 12:12-13; ESV). While they may feel their knees are about to give way, God’s kingdom which they have received cannot be shaken. It’s as if the writer is encouraging all of us who confess Jesus as our Lord in the following terms: Don’t despair on Heartbreak Hill. Run with endurance the race set before us.

I love how John Calvin paints the backdrop to the race in the Christian life, as recorded in Hebrews 12:1-2:

Now, the metaphor of a race is often to be found in Scripture; but here it means not any kind of race, but a running contest, which is wont to call forth the greatest exertions. The import of what is said then is, that we are engaged in a contest, even in a race the most celebrated, that many witnesses stand around us, that the Son of God is the umpire who invites and exhorts us to secure the prize, and that therefore it would be most disgraceful for us to grow weary or inactive in the midst of our course. And at the same time the holy men whom he mentioned, are not only witnesses, but have been associates in the same race, who have beforehand shown the way to us; and yet he preferred calling them witnesses rather than runners, in order to intimate that they are not rivals, seeking to snatch from us the prize, but approves to applaud and hail our victory; and Christ also is not only the umpire, but also extends his hand to us, and supplies us with strength and energy; in short, he prepares and fits us to enter on our course, and by his power leads us on to the end of the race.

As Calvin notes, we are not competing with the Lord and the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2). Rather, their example and encouragement should serve as motivation to help us run well the spiritual race. We have before us the Lord Jesus who has won the ultimate marathon: “He endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2; ESV). Along with his forerunners—the great cloud of witnesses, the Lord encourages us. He also strengthens us to press on to the end.

The trials we face along the way are not intended by God to hold us back or trip us up. Although believers will experience opposition and persecution, just as the Lord and the great cloud of witnesses, we should know that God uses even these trials to discipline us in love so that we will endure and make it to the finish line (Hebrews 12:5-6; 11; see also verse 1).

This chapter places a great deal of emphasis on the theme “endurance.” The author encourages all his readers to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1, 7). But why should we run with endurance? Because Jesus who is the founder of our faith endured hostility and the cross and despised its shame (Hebrews 12:2-3) Again, why should we endure? For discipline sake: “It is for discipline that you have to endure” (Hebrews 12:7; ESV). But it is not for discipline alone: God disciplines his children not for discipline’s sake as an end in itself, but so that our disciplined training will yield the fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:7-9, 11). But that fruit of righteousness is not the only outcome of our discipline. So, I ask again, why should we endure? Because we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).

Now what kind of kingdom will we inherit? Certainly, not one that is filled with heartbreak. Unlike Boston’s Heartbreak Hill in Boston, or heartbreak Mount Sinai that led Moses to exclaim, “I tremble with fear” (Hebrews 12:21; ESV), we have inherited Mount Zion. I love how the author describes this heart-expanding mountain:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24; ESV).

This heart-expanding mountain is worth all the arduous discipline, all the blood, sweat, and tears (Remember that the readers are reminded that they have not yet shed blood, but that day might await them). Like a good pastor and running coach, the author prepares his readers for the agonizing and treacherous obstacles on the course marked out for them. But our author does not leave it there. He tells his audience, which includes us, that our suffering is not in vain. God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10; ESV) and yield through our labor “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11; ESV). Moreover, the kingdom we are receiving for our labor “cannot be shaken” (12:28; ESV).

May we not start celebrating before the race is through and thereby lose our balance and go off course. Rather than glory in our own effort or grumble on the way for all that we must endure, may we be “grateful” and “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (12:28; ESV). While we are on our way to Mount Zion, which is ours to inherit, don’t think God will spare us the refiner’s fire. As F. F. Bruce remarks on this verse, “He who descended on Mount Sinai in fire and spoke to His people from the mist of that fire still consumes in the white heart of His purity everything that is unworthy of Himself” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament {Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964}, page 384). So, as we run, may we run well the race set before us. In all sobriety, let us keep our eye on the prize, looking only to Jesus, laying “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” (Hebrews 1:1b-2a).

In closing, I am grateful to the Lord Jesus for all he has gone through for us. Like all of you, I experience my own heartbreak hill from time to time. During such times, I am so grateful that Jesus is not simply the divine “umpire,” as Calvin notes. Rather, as Calvin also reminds us, Jesus “also extends his hand to us, and supplies us with strength and energy; in short, he prepares and fits us to enter on our course, and by his power leads us on to the end of the race.” Moreover, the Lord provides us running coaches like the author of Hebrews to assist us on our trek. I am grateful as well for these coaches, like my friend Randy who ran the Boston Marathon this past week. May we learn well from them so that we can encourage others: Don’t despair on Heartbreak Hill. Run with endurance the race set before us. Let’s cheer one another on to the finish line.

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