Let's consider how this verse fits the overall theme of the book of Hebrews.
A Christian writer, CT Russell, once said, "To appreciate the necessity for the book of Hebrews, we must mentally take our stand back in apostolic days and get our bearings as though we were living there under those conditions. The question of the Law Covenant was a burning question in the early Church, not only with the Hebrews, but also with the Gentiles. It seemed impossible, especially for the former, to learn that the Law Covenant was not necessary and that a Gentile could really have access the Abrahamic Covenant through Christ easier than a Jew could. The letter to the Hebrews was written to prove that a totally new dispensation of grace, and not of works, had been ushered in through Jesus at Pentecost."
In the book of Hebrews, the theme of Jesus' superiority is repeated over and over again.
In chapters 1 and 2, Paul writes that Jesus is better than the angels.
In chapter 3 of Hebrews, Paul says that Jesus was more worthy than Moses.
In chapters 4 through 8, he compares Jesus, as a high priest like Melchisedec, to the priesthood of Aaron, and shows the superiority of Jesus' real priesthood, which will be able to bring real salvation. Also, in chapter 8 Paul describes Jesus as the mediator of a better covenant, which is established upon better promises, showing that the Law given to Moses could not actually offer a perfect covenant relationship with God.
In chapter 10 Paul explains that in order to provide actual atonement, Jesus died only once while the sacrifice of bulls and goats in the tabernacle of the Old Testament had to be repeated every year.
He concludes chapter 10 by saying, "Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him" (Hebrews 10:38). And so, in all of this discussion, Paul is shifting the attention of his Jewish readers away from the Law given to Moses, to faith in Christ.
To illustrate the point that God is pleased with faith and was no longer interested in the formalities of the Law, Paul writes the 11th chapter where he describes some of the heroes of faith. Even when he gets to Moses, the mediator of the Law Covenant, he never even mentions the Law. To keep making his point he again emphasizes the great acts of faith that Moses did.
By faith he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter.
By faith he forsook Egypt.
By faith he kept the Passover.
By faith he passed over the Red Sea.
Then in chapter 12 he concludes by saying, "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."
Paul is making an allusion to the Olympic games here. Biblical commentator Adam Clarke says, "contenders, were often greatly animated by the consideration that the eyes of the principal men of their country were fixed upon them; and by this they were induced to make the most extraordinary exertions."
How much better does an athlete perform when family, friends and countrymen are watching? There's a certain inspiration he or she gains from that, isn't there?
Paul is saying that the Lord and His angles are watching how we live our lives. Like an athlete, we can be inspired to run a better race because we have an audience!
That's the larger context leading up to chapter 12. In verse 1 of chapter 12 Paul says that running for the prize of entering to Heaven will require great patience because sin is always present with us, always tempting us and trying to get us to fail. And so, patience is a fundamental characteristic of faith. One translation puts it this way: "We…should run the race that is before us and never quit. We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fall." (Easy to Read Version)
It's so easy to sin. It's harder to live by faith. In some ways, living by the formalities of the Old Law would be much easier. Because of the difficulty of living by faith, Paul tells us in verse 2 to look to Jesus as an example of how to do that.
"Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…" (Hebrews 12:2).
The original Greek word for "looking" unto Jesus literally means to "look away from one thing so as to see another." In other words, look away from sin—don't let sin be a temptation, look away from the things of this world and look towards Jesus and how he lived his life. Another definition of the word "look" is to "consider attentively." We should pay attention to his life, study it, and use it as a basis for how we live our lives and make decisions.
And then, as a key part of our passage, Paul describes Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. It's an interesting phrase. How is Jesus the author of our faith? The word author suggests the originator of faith. But, as we just saw in chapter 11, there were others before him who exhibited great faith.
Vine's dictionary says that the word "author" in this verse does not necessarily mean the source or originating cause, but more in the sense of leader: "He (Jesus) is represented as the one who takes precedence in faith and is thus the exemplar of it. The pronoun 'our' does not correspond to anything in the original, and may be omitted. Christ, in the days of his flesh, trod undeviatingly the path of faith, and as the Perfector, has brought it to a perfect end in his own person. Thus, he is the leader of all others who tread that path."
And so, we may read the first part of verse 2 like this, "Look away from sin and pay close attention to the example of Jesus who is our perfect leader on the path of faith."
In chapter 11 we were given a partial list of imperfect men and women who were still able to live a life of faith. But now, since Jesus came to earth, we have the ultimate example, the perfect ideal of a life lived in faith. We need both examples. We need to see how sinners could live a life of faith, and so we have chapter 11. But we also need the perfect standard of a life lived at the ideal level of faith. And for that, we have Jesus.
When we consider him, Paul tells us where to start in the very next phrase. He says, "who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame..."
He endured the cross, and he despised the shame. The word endured means to "bear up courageously, to patiently endure." What tremendous courage it took to willingly be crucified. As he hung on the cross he exhibited an extraordinary amount of patience, knowing that he could have called down 12 legions of angels if he wanted. But he chose not to. Instead, he waited for God's purposes to be done in him.
The original Greek word for "despising" means "to think slightly of." Disregarded is a good word here. He disregarded the shame. He thought nothing of it.
Jesus hung naked on the cross and thought nothing of the shame.
Those are some pretty amazing qualities! Courage, patience and a disregard for shame. The natural question is, "what was the joy that was set before Jesus" that could give him such strength? There were actually a number of things that brought Jesus joy:
- Doing the Father's will.
Demonstrating his absolute love to the Father.
Knowing he would redeem and restore mankind to perfection.
Looking forward to his exaltation to glory, honor and immortality.
- The future task of bringing many sons to glory.
By sending Jesus to be our Savior, the Heavenly Father set all of these opportunities before him. So the prospect of accomplishing the work that God gave him to do brought such joy to his heart that it gave him the strength to overcome every obstacle that was presented.
That same joy has also been set before those who follow Christ. So when we are struggling with sin, or when we have an opportunity to demonstrate our faith, we can use any one of these as our motivation as well.
The joy of doing the Father's will reminds us of Jesus' admonition to his disciples to be as little children. One of the things that Jesus may have been thinking of when he said that was how a child wants to please a parent.
A Story About Doing the Father's Will
A young boy was given an old 5 gallon can by his father, and told to go to the gas station to buy some kerosene. That was in the days before water based paint and paint brushes had to be cleaned with kerosene. The boy took that empty can and went to one station that was only a block away from home, but they didn't have kerosene. So he went to another one a couple of blocks further away, and wouldn't you know it, they didn't have any either. He went further and by the time he found a station that sold kerosene he was about a mile and a half away from home. He was so glad to find that gas station that he proceeded to fill the can all the way up, because he thought that's why his dad gave him such a big can.
As he carried it home he thought that filling it was probably not the smartest thing to do because it was very heavy. After a while he had to keep stopping until he was stopping about every 10 steps. When he was a little more than half way home an older gentleman came up behind him and saw that he was struggling and walking really slow. He offered to carry that can for the boy and he ended up bringing it all the way home. The boy though that the man must have been an angel, and maybe he was.
When he came into the house he was tired and realized that his clothes smelled like kerosene, but there was just something about pleasing his dad that motivated him. When he got home his dad had already gone to bed. He typically got up for work very early, so his evenings were usually short. The boy put the can of kerosene in the basement and the father never really realized what the boy had been through for that old can of kerosene, but somehow, he was OK with that. There was just something about obeying and pleasing his dad that made the boy feel good inside.
It should be pure joy for us to want to please our Heavenly Father too. Every time we choose to act in faith we are carrying that kerosene can. And no matter how heavy it is, we take a certain joy in doing it. And the Father, who never sleeps, even sends angels to help us when we need it.
When Jesus said (Luke 15:7) that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, he was giving us a glimpse of heaven's attitude. It suggests that the same joy is felt in heaven every time each of us struggles against sin, every time that we do an act of faith, every time we allow faith to control the way we react to experiences in life.
Jesus was motivated by the sheer pleasure of pleasing his Father. This helped him to endure all that he did with an unshakeable faith.
Jesus also endured the suffering and the shame because it gave him the opportunity to show God how much he loved Him.
Love is often manifested by the things we do. Love does not always have to be manifested through service, but when we sacrifice ourselves for a cause, or for people, or in the Lord's service, it demonstes what is in our heart.
In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good…for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh."
Out of the heart service is rendered. The next time that you are presented with an opportunity for sacrifice, you will find it easier to accept the sacrifice if you see it as an opportunity to show God how much you love Him. That's one of the things that motivated Jesus and that we can surely take to heart.
Another joy that was set before our Lord was the prospect of the kingdom, when the work of bringing mankind to perfection and helping to establish their one on one relationship with God will finally happen.
When we look out at the world, we see the need for God's kingdom. It is a prospect that Jesus treasured in his heart, and since his invisible return, he is currently preparing the world for that very thing. Sometimes we may wonder if what we do in the Lord's service makes any difference, especially if it seems to yield meager results. When we are tempted to think these things, remember what motivated Jesus. He knew that he was being prepared to carry out a plan that no one else at that time could see.
He knew that the kingdom cannot function without a priesthood. He knew that the kingdom cannot work without a great Mediator. He knew that the kingdom cannot be successful without merciful and compassionate people leading the way, counseling and guiding every individual.
When we're struggling to grow, the prospect of being part of this grand work should inspire us to keep going, to never give up, to be patient for God's work of preparing us to serve that kingdom. To think that each of us can be part of that great solution should be something that we focus on and keep in mind.
Another important lesson we learn from Jesus is that when he was confronted with hatred and persecution what caused him not to hate those individuals in return was the prospect that someday they would change, that it was only a temporary condition, caused by sin and influenced by Satan.
This singular truth, this precious hope, is so powerful that it can help each of us look at people who are doing bad things, and who may even treat us badly, in the same way. We can look at sinful people today and know that the kingdom will have a profound effect on most of them and will change them radically for the good.
So, like Jesus, rather than hating the sinner, we can hate the sin, and still see the potential in others and love them for that potential.
Another joy that motivated our Lord was the prospect of a heavenly reward. Remember how he longed to be with the Father again? In John 17:5 he said, "And Now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was."
Part of the glory that he was asking for was the glory of being in the presence of God. He knew what that was like because he had been there before. But we can't possibly know what it will be like to be in the presence of God. Yet that prospect can be a strong motivation.
The beautiful things that inspire us on earth will pale in comparison to the beauty of heaven. If the earth is called God's footstool, imagine what God's home must be like.
Not only do we have the prospect of being in the presence of the all-powerful, all-wise, merciful and loving Creator, but we know that He is a God with great plans. His plans reach beyond the earthly kingdom. We know this because we are given a tiny hint of it in the Scriptures when the Apostle Paul wrote about "Ages to Come."
That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:7
Paul tells us that God's kindnesses toward us will extend into the ages to come.
To think of the opportunity that we will have of working with Jesus and other saints on wonderful projects that God has planned is simply an inspiring vision.
Don't think small, because God doesn't! Don't just think short term, because God has plans that extend out into eternity. The future holds great promise in making our lives really mean something, knowing that our lives can make a difference, not only in this world, but in worlds beyond what we know today.
But it all starts with our thoughts and with the commitments that we make every day to serve the Lord and to grow our faith and to become more Christ-like. Jesus was raised to glory, honor and immortality. It's a prospect that is available to all those committed to God in this age. But it is not something that we can fully understand today.
We sometimes define immortality as "death-proof, life within oneself." But, some day, we will likely be surprised at how totally we underestimated what a life in heaven will be like. But from time to time, we should try, because that's what we are being offered if we follow the Leader and Perfector of our faith.
"Think constantly of him enduring all that sinful men could say against him and you will not lose your purpose or your courage." (Heb. 12:3 – Phillips translation)
It's easy to lose our purpose in life, isn't it? Life has a way of distracting us and telling us we can't live a true life of faith. But, Paul's remedy is to keep our eyes fixed on the life and example of our leader.
How does a Christian respond to the grace of God? In Matthew 18 Jesus gave us the answer in the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The parable was in response to Peter's question in verse 21, when he asked, "How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Till seven times?"
Jesus answered and said, "I say not unto thee, until seven times; but, until seventy times seven.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, who would make a reckoning with his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him that owed him ten thousand talents.
But forasmuch as he had not [wherewith] to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
And the lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him a hundred shillings: and he laid hold on him, and took [him] by the throat, saying, Pay what thou owest. So his fellow-servant fell down and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay that which was due.
So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were exceeding sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him unto him, and saith to him, Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou besoughtest me:
shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on thee?
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due. So shall also my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts."
How could this man not see the connection between the great debt that he was forgiven, and the trivial amount that was owed to him? Most likely, this man did not truly rejoice over the forgiveness of his debt. The debt the first servant owed was, by today's standard, equivalent to roughly $20 million, while the debt owed to him was around $100.
Here, Jesus gives us the process that creates a forgiving heart. Truly appreciating the forgiveness that we have received will prevent bitterness from entering our hearts. If this servant had truly valued what his master had done for him, how could he have grabbed his fellow servant by the neck and demanded justice?
To think of the life that he would have had without his master's mercy should have changed him. The king's forgiveness would have avoided a life spent in prison, under the hands of men who would mistreat him. How could he underestimate the value of being spared such a fate?
Perhaps he thought the king wasn't so smart, that to forgive such a large debt was foolish, and that because he was smarter he was going to win on both ends. But it turns out that he missed the point, allowing greed to motivate him, rather than appreciating the great mercy shown to him.
A greedy person, who doesn't see the value of kindness and forgiveness, is prone to always be dissatisfied in life. Anyone who would do what he did will generally never be satisfied with his lot in life. If this man had the wisdom to appreciate the mercy shown to him and had applied it in his own life, he would have laughed when thinking of the small $100 debt he was owed, and he would have forgiven it without a second thought.
Looking at our lot in life, we have been released from condemnation under Adam, and that is most remarkable. What is $20 million when compared to being justified in the eyes of God? What are all the world's possessions when compared to the life we are promised through Christ?
Having Jesus as our Advocate, to plead our cause before God, should make us realize the type of people we should be. As a result of these free gifts we are being asked to make changes that are not superficial, but must be life-altering and permanent.
Knowing the character of God, and what Jesus has done for us on so many levels, should affect the way we view everything. When we study Jesus we see tenderness and compassion. Those are the eyes that we must look through. So if you ever see even a hint of bitterness creeping into your heart, remember what you have been forgiven.
Finally, Jesus took joy in the hope of bringing many sons to glory. In other words, he wants you with him, helping him, working with him! It's a wonderful prospect, and when we read passages like Song of Solomon 4:10 where we have the prophetic expression of Jesus, we see how much he desires to be united with his bride.
He says, "How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! How much better is thy love than wine!"
Or Psalm 45:11, "So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty…"
We have a wonderful Savior, a Savior who did so much more that die for us. He left a legacy of faith that we can learn from and be inspired by. He brought us hope for an amazing future, after we learn what we are supposed to learn in this life.
By considering him with our full attention, by looking away from everything else, we can have the strength not to lose our purpose or our courage in this life. And for our Lord's unwavering example of living the perfect life of faith we thank him and we thank God!