We find ourselves this morning in the midst of a rather
unusual holiday. If you were here last
week perhaps you remember that we dealt briefly with the idea of Palm Sunday
before we entered into a time of guided prayer and repentance. I remarked that Palm Sunday is kind of an odd
sort of celebration because it celebrates the first day of the last week of
Jesus’ life. However, if Palm Sunday is
an odd celebration, then Easter just boggles the mind.
First there is the acknowledgment if not outright
celebration of a day called “Good Friday” in which we remember the death of
Jesus by crucifixion, a brutal and painful form of execution, and his burial in
a borrowed tomb. We speak about Jesus’
illegal trials in such a way that it seems as if we’re trying to convince
ourselves that Jesus really was sinless and innocent (I’m not sure we need to
defend Jesus’ innocence). We paint a
graphic depiction of Jesus’ torture, humiliation, and death on the cross in
order to convict people’s hearts that Jesus died for their sins. Then we talk about how he was placed in the
Saturday before Easter we generally leave alone because we
don’t really know what to do with that day.
So we either go about it as a regular day or we use it to welcome family
to our homes who are coming in to celebrate Easter. (If you’re in my family, we generally have
our gathering on Saturday before Easter because we all want to be in our own
churches on Sunday.)
Then comes Easter Sunday morning for which we all put on our
best most recently purchased attire and head to church at 5:00am. If there’s a day when everyone goes to church
it’s Easter. We sit around and listen to
sermons about the illegal trials of Jesus and his brutal death. Occasionally we’ll hear about scientific data
to support the death of Jesus, then we’ll talk about the triumphant
resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb, and we’ll defend our faith to ourselves
then offer an invitation. Then we go
home, eat ham (how that worked its way into a celebration that stemmed from the
Jewish faith I’ll never know), and hunt eggs hidden by a sadistic hare.
After this, we return to regularly scheduled programming as
if nothing significant happened at all.
I say all of this not to diminish what happens on Easter
Sunday. There are a great many people who
love God very much and are simply trying to bring to light the amazing
redemptive work of Jesus. What I think
we’ve missed, though, is the whole story of redemption. What I mean by that is that we present the
gospel in such a way as to win people to Christianity, and then we don’t really
know what to do after that. We present
evidence of Jesus’ death and resurrection and hope the Spirit moves in
someone’s heart in such a way that they want to be saved, but we don’t know
what to do with the resurrection after that.
I submit to you that there is much more going on with the
resurrection than we really understand.
Salvation is not about rescuing us from this evil world or even from the
fires of Hell. Salvation is much more
about a new life, a resurrected life, a life that is different from what it was
before. I want to talk about this life
today. I want us to focus on the gospel
It’s a frightening thing to have your first Easter Sunday
ever because this day is why we meet at all.
This day is why we meet on Sundays.
This day is why we are Christians.
This day has so much significance to it and, yet, I think we often drop
the ball when it comes to Easter. This
passage I’m reading from today is not a traditional Easter passage, but I
believe it sets up for us what being Christian is all about.
The author of Hebrews begins this passage with the phrase
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” As we discovered a few weeks ago, whenever
there’s a “therefore” in the text, we must find out what it’s there for. When you take into account the fact that the
author references a “cloud of witnesses” and the fact that chapter 11 was all
about our faith lineage, we can assume that the author was talking about these
people he just referenced.
Since we are surrounded by this group of witnesses, I think
it’s important to look at these people and see what the author was talking
about. He begins chapter 11 with some
familiar faces, Abel, Enoch, and Noah, then moves on to the patriarchs,
Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. From there he
speaks of the Israelites who escaped Egypt in the Exodus and briefly references
Samson, Gideon, David, and Samuel, among others. Then he goes into this long list of people
whose names we don’t know. We have no
clue who these people are, yet their deeds are recorded in this book of
Some of these people conquered kingdoms, enforced justice,
obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions and quenched the power of
fire. Others escaped the edge of the
sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign
armies to shame. It says that there were
women who received back their dead by resurrection. If we stop right here with this, then I don’t
know anyone who wouldn’t be in. If this
was what Christianity was all about, then who wouldn’t want to be a part of
it? Who wouldn’t want to stop the mouth
of a lion or quench the power of fire?
Who wouldn’t want to be mighty and put foreign armies to shame? Who wouldn’t want to receive back from the
dead those they had lost? If this was
the story of Christianity, everyone would be in!
But the author goes on to say that “some were tortured,
refusing to accept release.” Others, he
says, were mocked and flogged, put in chains and imprisoned. There were some who were stoned. Some were sawn in two. Some were killed; some went around destitute,
wearing skins of goats and sheep. Others
lived in deserts or mountains, in caves and dens like animals. This isn’t such a pretty picture. When we get to this part we don’t like to
talk about it. When we get to this part
we don’t like to think about those possibilities. When we get to these verses we like to look
the other way or at least say, “Those people were radical. God didn’t call me to that.”
When I think about those verses the thing that stands out to
me most is this group of people who were sawn in two. We’ve seen the magic trick where they cut
someone in half and pull the table apart so you can see that it’s “real.” This wasn’t that. These people were cut in half because of
their faith, because of the way they lived.
I don’t know why, but that type of death amazes me. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be
sawn in two. I can’t imagine the type of
hatred it must take to stone someone to death.
And yet these people endured this rather than renounce their faith. And we don’t even know their names.
What caused them to do this?
I am in awe of that kind of faith.
But the author doesn’t stop there, either. He continues on. This is what I want us to see. This is the gospel of Jesus.
“Therefore,” he says, “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…” Let us also
lay aside every weight and sin. What
does this mean? These people, in chapter
11, lived their lives in such a way that nothing hindered their journey,
nothing got in their way of doing what they had been called to do, what they
felt their lives were about. Let us also lay aside…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.” This is the gospel of Jesus. He is the author and the perfecter of our
faith. He is the one in whom our faith
is founded, and the one who brings completion to it and all things. He is the origin of life and the completion
of life. Jesus is the beginning and the
end. The equivalent of this concept is
also present in the book of Revelation where Jesus says he is the “first and
the last” or the “Alpha and the Omega.”
We have a saying here at Cornerstone that we have a one-word
theology, Jesus. It starts with Jesus,
it will end with Jesus, and in the middle, it’s all about Jesus. He is everything, the one who brings all
things together, the one who makes all things right. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.
He endured the cross, the author says. Why does he bring this up here? The author says he endured the cross,
despising the shame. What was the shame
of the cross? First of all there was
physical humiliation. Being naked and
beaten beyond recognition, then forced to carry the enormous weight of a large
piece of wood uphill while people spit on you and called you named would
probably not be a pleasant thing. Then
to have them mock you while you hung on nails driven through your wrists and
ankles bleeding to death and suffocating from the fluid building up in your
lungs would not be fun. But also taking
on all the sin of the world, past, present, and future, would cause such a deep
shame and humiliation that it would be unbearable. Jesus despised the shame of the cross. He despised the corruption and the impurity
Yet, the author says it was for the joy set before him that
he did this. Where is the joy? Jesus looked to the glorious outcome of his
humiliation. He looked to the finished
act of redemption, reconciling man to God.
The joy that was set before him was the completed act of
redemption. It’s no coincidence that as
Jesus died he looked up and said “it is finished.” The final act of redemption had been
completed. The final act of absolution
had taken place.
Let us run with endurance the race. What is marked out for us is going to require
effort. What is required of us is going
to be painful. The Greek word for “race”
that is used here is agona, which is
where we get our English word agony. Let us run with endurance the race. The race is the path marked out for us, which
brings us back to Hebrews 11. There is
an amazing diversity in the lives mentioned in this chapter. Some were patriarchs upon whose faithfulness
the nation of Israel was founded. Some
were patriarchs and kings who led the nation through good times and bad. Some stopped the mouths of lions and quenched
fire. Some received their dead back
through resurrection. But others were
tortured and imprisoned. They were
stoned and sawn in two.
It’s with this truth
that the author of Hebrews could say “looking to Jesus.” Some translations say “let us fix our eyes on
Jesus…” Because of what others have done
before us let us fix our eyes on Jesus.
Because of the examples they’ve given to us, let us put our lives in
perspective and put our focus on him.
Why? Because he provided the act
of redemption by which we can stand before the Father at all. He gave us the ability to be called sons and
daughters of God.
I think what has happened in our culture is that we
predetermine what everyone’s life is supposed to be like. We look at someone and say “they have a comfortable
life; they must be pleasing to God.” Or
we’ll say, “They’ve been faithful, they should have a comfortable life.” The problem we have is Hebrews 11. I think what the author has done is
brilliant. It’s in verses 39-40 of
chapter 11. He says “And all these,
though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since
God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be
made perfect.” They were faithful! All of them!
Yet they didn’t receive what was promised. They didn’t see the Messiah. They were faithful, but they didn’t get to
see the Messiah. That blows my mind.
Because of their faithfulness, because they lived it right
even though they didn’t know the promised Jesus, we should also lay aside
everything that hinders and run with endurance the race.
There is a race marked out for each of us and it’s not the
same race. There is a life we have each
been called to and it’s not the same life.
Some of us are going to stop the mouths of lions and put foreign armies
to shame. Some of us are going to be
tortured and imprisoned. Some of us are
going to quench the power of fire and receive back our dead by resurrection. Some of us are going to sawn in two and
stoned to death. Both kinds of lives are
good. All of us can be faithful. The platform doesn’t matter. The praise doesn’t matter. Whether you get your name written in Hebrews
11 or not doesn’t matter. Jesus matters.
You see, what we’ve done with the gospel of Jesus is
this: We’ve turned the whole Bible into
a story about salvation, your salvation.
We’ve taken all the stories in the Old Testament and New and applied
them in such a way that all we want is for you to get saved. We’ve preached about the cross, the torture,
death, and burial of Christ and said that Jesus died to save you from your
sins. While all of this is true, if you
stop there you have an incomplete gospel.
If you stop there you end up with infant Christians who are 70 years old
and wonder why their lives are incomplete.
If you stop there you only get half the story.
Jesus did die for the sins of the world. He took them upon himself in a sacrificial
act of atonement, but he didn’t stop there.
Three days later he rose again.
Now we get all worked up about that because we believe that because
Jesus rose from the grave one day we will all rise from the grave at the second
coming of Christ. While that’s also
true, it again misses the point.
We have not been saved for some future eternity in some
mystical place called Heaven. Let me say
that again. We have not been saved for
Heaven. If we boil down the message of
the whole Bible to “repent and be saved” we miss out on the message of Jesus. Salvation is good and important. Indeed, we have been saved from our sinful
flesh and for a future in Heaven, but that isn’t the point. The message of the Bible is that God is in
the business of redeeming all of creation to himself. When sin entered the Garden, the relationship
between God and man was fractured.
Because of this, all of creation has suffered. The message of the Bible is that God is real
and we are to show how he desires all of humanity to know him.
If Jesus’ death saves us from,
then Jesus’ resurrection saves us to.
Jesus’ resurrection is not for us to have some distant
future in Heaven. Jesus’ resurrection is
so we will understand the need for us to live changed lives now. We see a physical picture of this every time
we witness baptism. Paul says that we
are buried with Christ in baptism, but raised to walk in a new life. We are raised to walk a new life. When Jesus was raised from the dead it wasn’t
some ethereal, spiritual resurrection, it was a physical one, with a new body
and everything. When talking with his
disciples he told them to touch him and see that there were bones in his
arms. He was alive again. It was new life.
The goal isn’t Heaven.
The goal is newness of life.
Remember also that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. There is a lineage to our faith. We aren’t the first ones. In fact, Hebrews says, it is through our
faithfulness that the ones who come before us will be complete. The lives they lived won’t have been in
vain. The author says for us to follow
their example, to look at their lives and live faithfully as well.
This is the gospel of Jesus.
He came to earth, born as a human in the normal human way, grew up and
lived a sinless life, performed signs and wonders fulfilling prophecy about who
the Messiah would be, died a brutal and humiliating death, and rose from the grave
three days later. He died to pay the
price for our sins. He rose so we might
experience new life on earth. This new
life is characterized by faithfulness to his message of love, by helping to
lessen suffering wherever we find it, by fighting injustice and hatred, by
feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty.
We’ve been raised to walk a new life.
Salvation is a free gift and a cost-everything lifestyle.
Some of you will stop the mouths of lions. Others will be devoured. Both are faithful.
Some of you will put foreign armies to shame. Others will be killed by those armies. Both are faithful.
Following Jesus is about how you live. Being saved isn’t saying a prayer and then
waiting around for Heaven. Being saved
is a life-long commitment to living like Jesus.
How will you respond to the truth of the gospel?