December 24, 2010

A People Who Endure

David Horton knows how to endure. In 1991 he ran the 2,178-mile-long (3,505 km.) Appalachian Trail in the eastern part of the United States in a record 52 days. Horton covered 40 miles (64 km.) per day, a pace many of us could not maintain for even one day. But even Horton struggles to maintain his endurance as he ages. The 60-year-old recently had to abandon a 485-mile (781 km.) run when his arms, hands, and feet started swelling.
While we probably couldn’t match Horton’s running records, many of us know what it’s like to lose endurance as we age. And age isn’t the only enemy, nor is the athletic arena the only challenge to endurance. We all know how difficult it is to hold out to the very end. Whether we are making a dress, plowing a field, preparing a dissertation, or writing a report, we grow weary at the end. We find it difficult to maintain the level of quality and commitment with which we began.
For 147 years Seventh-day Adventists have looked for Jesus’ soon return. How can we maintain our enthusiasm and commitment to proclaiming the good news that Jesus is coming again? How can we be a people who endure? One of the characteristics of God’s end-time people is that they have the patience/endurance of the saints (Rev. 14:12). In their journey their faith will be tested, but they will prevail to the end.
2010 1532 page18Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we are not alone in running the race of faith: “We are surrounded by . . . a great cloud of witnesses,” men and women whose faith in God’s promises can inspire us today.
Joy Chen came from a family that prized wisdom. Her father and grandfather were scholars. She herself was highly educated and valued education. In the eulogy at her funeral her son Tony remembered how she taught her children and grandchildren to value their heritage of 5,000 years of Chinese history. She wanted that family history to inspire her children to persist in their studies and to pass on their values and learning to others.
In Hebrews 11 we discover that our faith-family history stretches back more than 6,000 years. It includes heroes such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, but also ordinary men and women such as Rahab, Gideon, and Barak. Their example of enduring faith inspires us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1, NKJV).1
But how did our faith-family heroes complete their race of faith? How can we complete our race and become, with them, a people who endure? Hebrews 12:1, 2 tells us that Christian endurance comes from leaving and looking. To run the race of faith with endurance, we must (1) leave behind hindrances and sins, and (2) look to Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”
Runners strip off excess clothing to reduce their body weight. They avoid anything that might keep them from winning the race. Whatever weighs us down spiritually, whether it be good or evil, must be thrown away if we are to complete our race of faith.
Each of our faith-family ancestors had to leave behind both hindrances and entangling sins. Noah had never seen rain when God asked him to believe in a worldwide flood. Abraham left one of the most sophisticated cities of his day, Ur of the Chaldees, “even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Like Pharaoh, Moses might have been worshipped as a god-king, his wealth and power unsurpassed for his time, but instead he “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb. 11:25, 26).
Moses could leave the best this world could offer because he was looking ahead to a better reward. The same reward awaits us as we look to Jesus: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
Here is how we become a people who endure. Runners know the danger of looking away from their goal. In his 100-meter race at the 2008 Olympic Games, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt almost missed a world record because he looked around in celebration before crossing the finish line. Only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus will “the things of earth grow strangely dim.”
New brain research confirms that leaving hindrances behind and looking to Jesus can physically reshape one’s brain. In 1998 scientists discovered that the adult human brain can grow new neurons. Evidently, the brain fertilizes cells that we use and kills off cells that we do not use. According to Dr. John J. Ratey: “What we now know is that the brain is flexible. . . . It is an adaptable organ that can be molded by input in much the same way as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting barbells. The more you use it, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.”2
What we think about and what we do in every dimension of life are sculpting our brains either into the image of Jesus Christ or into some other image. To endure in the race of faith, we need to strengthen our focus on Jesus and weaken our attraction to entangling sins and hindrances.
But don’t think our choices produce these changes. Jesus, Hebrews reminds us, is the author and the perfecter of our faith. When we leave hindrances and sins behind and look to Jesus, we are changing cable companies. We are asking Jesus to be our content provider from the beginning to the end of our faith journey.
Why is Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith? He is the runner whose perfect life is our example. His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection guarantee our salvation, and because He is seated “at the right hand of the throne of God,” He has all the power of the universe to help us finish our race.
Why did Jesus do all this? Hebrews 12:2 says: “. . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” That joy was the joy of seeing you and me in heaven with Him. Jesus’ agony in the garden, the excruciating pain of the cross, the anguish of separation from His Father—Jesus endured it all because He looked forward to the joy of welcoming us home.
Hebrews 12:3 concludes: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” It was his vision of Jesus that gave Stephen the endurance to die praying for those who stoned him (Acts 7:55, 56), and it is our vision of Jesus that will strengthen us to run with endurance the race marked out for us. Even death itself cannot prevent us from completing our race, for Jesus promises: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10, NKJV). 
1Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), pp. 35, 36.
1. In what ways is the Christian life like running a race?
2. How can the Sabbath help us to develop endurance in the Christian life?
3. Could even good things be weighing us down? What might some of them be?
Douglas Jacobs is a professor of preaching and church ministry at Southern Adventist University located in Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A. This article was published September 23, 2010.