“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.” -Hebrews 12:2, ESV
As mostly Western Christians (assuming that the broad audience of this blog are American), we read the biblical passages that speak of horrific persecution of faithful followers of Jesus with a distant mind. As Dr. Michael Brown recently said, our idea of persecution is being unfriended on Facebook. We don’t understand the concept of having our property seized, facing possible jail time, physical harm, or death because we identify ourselves with Christ. So it is difficult for many of us to relate to some of the beautiful passages such as Hebrews 12, where the writer speaks of a supernatural joy that can be experienced by those who trust in their Savior in the midst of unspeakable suffering and persecution.
PRESENT AFFLICTIONS & PROMISES-
I love the beautiful words of the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, where it speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” who served as examples for our Christian faith, and then presenting Christ as our “author and perfecter” of our faith. But in order to truly understand why these words of encouragement were necessary, we need to step back into chapter 10 to see just what the original audience of this letter was facing:
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a shard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” -Hebrews 10:32-34, ESV
The early church, as well as many brave believers in hostile nations in our time today, found the words of Christ to be very true- “they will hate you because they hated me”. And again as Paul has clearly explained, anyone who lives for Christ will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Though many of us may not be able to directly relate, we read of a church that truly had to love their enemies, bless their persecutors, and turn another cheek. They had to scrape and scratch to gain ground for the Kingdom of God, and were forced to count the cost each time they gathered together for prayer and worship. And as a result, Christians had to possess a true faith that testified to their hearts that this world was not their home.
Hebrews 11 records the famous list of those “champions of faith”- the great figures of old who, through their example of radical obedience, proved the faithfulness of God to those who would dare to believe Him. And though we often are drawn to the amazing miracles that were wrought by their faith, we sometimes miss the point of the author’s referencing of these inspiring men and women.
“All these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” – Hebrews 11:39, ESV
Although we tend to point to the stories of Noah, Abraham, and Moses as the primary examples of faith, the author of Hebrews draws also from those who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…” (Heb. 11:36-37, ESV) He points not only to the victorious as the glorious pillars of our faith, but also (and most powerfully) to those who had suffered in hopes of future grace as witness for the saints of Christ.
THE JOY OF THE CROSS-
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” -Hebrews 12:3, ESV
In a climatic fashion, having addressed the present suffering of the church, and reminding them of their faithful heritage, the author then points to Christ and his own suffering on the cross as the great and final example of how we are to endure this life of continuous struggle. He reminds them of the pure and blameless One who was afflicted by sinners, to remind them of His humility in the face of unjust treatment.
But most importantly, we are pointed beyond the suffering of the cross to see the source of Christ’s ultimate joy: His future glory and exaltation, where He now enjoys the continual fellowship at the right hand of the throne of His father, forever. It was the full confidence and assurance in God’s great promises that propelled Christ through Calvary, and the writer of Hebrews draws on this to spur the church to endure hardships for His sake.
There is a joy that can be found, even in the midst of the most cruel and difficult sufferings of this life. As we look unto Jesus, we recognize that His overarching serenity at the most painful moments of sacrificial obedience, was found not in the moment, but in the promise that was to come beyond the suffering.