Simply Put... God is Faithful
The condition of the Hebrew Christian community leading up to the line “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” is difficult for us to understand in 2019. I have seen line “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” on the back of running shirts during races in Richmond and Virginia Beach. While I was running the Marine Corps half-marathon in Fredericksburg a few years ago there was an evangelist on the corner, outside of a church we happened to be running past hold a sign with this line of scripture on it while kids from the youth group passed out cups of water to runners who were just hitting the half-way point of the race before them.
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” signals that in some way, shape, or form, the recipients of this letter were facing a trial. There was something set before them that was causing them to falter in their faith. The author of the letter knew this group of Jewish Christians needed encouragement as they had become weary and found themselves faltering in their faith. This group of followers of Jesus had become discouraged in the face of mounting pressure from political and religious leaders of the day, to abandon their faith in the Jesus as the Messiah and to return to the teachings of the synagogue.
At the time this letter was penned, a clear dividing line had yet to be drawn between Jews and Christians who happened to be Jewish. The details of the newly formed faith, established by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had yet to be worked out neatly into doctrines and Jews who happened to be Christians found themselves gathering in the synagogues to meet and pray. Because of their faith in Christ, these Jewish Christians, once part of the mainstream religious group, now found themselves excluded from the mainstream and facing mounting pressure from the religious establishment to abandon their faith.
When the synagogue was the hub of political and religious activity, in a community your where religious identity decided for you whether or not you were in the ‘in” crowd, going against the grain of the norm created not only pressure to abandon one’s faith but if you chose not to abandon your faith you would also be ostracized and excluded by people you once considered to be close friends or even family.
The idea of being ostracized and excluded from the community, your friends, and family because of your faith in Christ is a concept we in the West today have difficulty understanding. When was the last time you were persecuted or pressured to abandon the faith you have in Christ? I cannot think of a single time in my life when that has been the case but for the recipients of this letter, persecution and pressure was part of their new normal. Because of this pressure, their faith was beginning to wane.
To reassure the recipients of the letter, the author goes back to history of Israel they, Jewish Christians, would have known well to recount the faithfulness of those who had gone before them, citing heroes of the Hebrew Bible who did not have the easiest path set before them and yet, by the grace of G-d persevered. These are stories the recipients of this letter would have remembered hearing time and time again, as the community reflected on what it meant to be occupied by an outside power, yet again.
Passing “through the Red Seas as if it were dry land,” Moses led the Israelites to freedom from their captors in Egypt. In Egypt, they were used as slave labor and yet in the midst of the weariness of their bondage, the Lord prepared a way for them.
A military victory at Jericho, the first such victory as Israel moved into the land promised to them by the Lord, served as a reminder that in the face of overwhelming odds, G-d would remain faithful to the promises made. Regardless of how we today feel about the conquering of other people, contextually, this story would have been a rallying story for the Hebrew Christians, especially the addition of Rahab into the mix as her faithfulness not only spared her family but at the same time aided Israel in claiming what had been promised by the Lord.
The author continued by citing the prophets Israel had relied upon for faith, guidance, and justice. These were people who were called to speak truth to the powerful leaders of the day and at the same time remain faithful to the One who had called them to their station.
All of the stories cited by the author individually would serve as reminders of remaining perseverant while running the race set before the audience. Yet cited together, with the addition of martyrs during the Maccabean period, this section of the letter became a powerful rallying cry for those who had wavered in their faith.
The recipients of the letter would have looked at this section, looking to the witnesses who had gone before them as proof of the reality of a life of full devotion to the Lord. These witnesses would have been the “all-stars” of the faith, the one’s they aspired to be like, and yet, as the author reminds us, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since G-d had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
This is the shift of focus for the ancient church and us today. In the midst of hardship or wavering faith, it is easy for us to want to look to the saints of the church universal for strength and guidance. We can look to the stories of the Hebrew Bible, to the heroes of Israel for strength. We can look to the stories from our own lives, the saints who raised us in the faith - parents, friends, Sunday school teachers, nice old ladies at church - who set the example for us. They are the ones who raised us in the church and yet apart from them G-d promised and continues to promise something better. G-d has promised us someone better. Someone who was perfect in his faithfulness to G-d and someone who continues to be perfect in his faithfulness to the new creation ushered in by his resurrection.
The shift from the hardships faced by the church - back then and today - towards Christ refocuses the church’s attention away from what ails us and gives us the hope that in the midst of hardship our Lord remained and remains faithful. During persecution, torture, and death Christ remained faithful.
Whatever may come the way of the church, we know that the faithfulness we exhibit is grounded in the faithfulness of Christ. Without relying on the faithfulness of Christ, to the point of death, the church then and today has little to stand on.
Simply put… because G-d is faithful, we are assured that we may live more faithful lives.
We do not have to live in fear of weariness or hardship.
We do not have to live in fear of what if’s.
We do not have to live as though we are doing this on our own.
Each of the people listed by the author of this letter, referencing stories from the Hebrew Bible were not exactly the perfect people or events we think G-d would use.
Moses, before leading Israel to freedom through the Red Sea, killed a man.
The battle of Jericho gave a new home to Israel but another group of people was displaced.
Rahab may not have been a prostitute.
David, the great king of Israel, had a man sent to the front lines and killed so that David could then take the man’s wife as his own.
Throughout the Psalms, many of which are attributed to David, we read of weariness and difficulty in keeping one’s faith.
But through the saints imperfections and our own, through the weariness experienced by the saints and the weariness we experience, the endurance of Jesus in the journey we all find ourselves in is sufficient when our endurance wavers.
Christ is the perfecter of our faith. Not our individual-personal faith but rather the faith we cling to as a community, the faith of saints of today and saints who have gone before us. Christ’s faithfulness perfected the faith we claim and remains sufficient for us today when our faith wanes. Not only are we the beneficiaries of the witness of the saints but we are the beneficiaries of G-d’s faithfulness through the saints and throughout Jesus Christ.