Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
(New American Standard Version, 1995)
So, you’re running the race, you’re working hard, muscles pumping, lungs gasping for air, sweat drenching you from head to toe, but you’re up, on your feet, pressing hard… then, you stumble, you feel yourself falling, and you hit the dirt—HARD!
Now what? Do you lie there in shame, in tears, wallowing in your guilt, feeling like a failure because, after all, it’s not the first time you’ve stumbled, it’s not the first time you’ve fallen… which is making you feel even more like a complete and utter failure? So, do you just quit the race right then and there? Do you throw in the towel? Do you figure you might as well just walk away from the race, give it up altogether, and find other, perhaps more pleasurable endeavors to pursue?
Or do you, one more time, struggle to try to get your legs back under you so that you can press on? Do you, like you’ve had to do so many times before, reach out for Him—for God—and let Him pick you up, again, and dust you off, again, and wipe your tears, again, as He binds your broken limbs and sets you back on the trail? Do you, yet again, utter a cry for the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to put one foot in front of the other and just keep on moving?
This passage of scripture speaks of a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (verse 1). Likely, that refers to all those people mentioned in the previous chapter, those whose names are listed in our “Great Hall of Faith” who, by the Lord’s grace, accomplished some wonderful things to His glory. They bear witness, or testimony, to God’s grace by the way they chose to lead their lives during their time on earth. Were any of them perfect? Certainly not. In fact, in most cases, we can point to places in the historical record that point out their weaknesses and sins. They were people who were fraught with failure, fear, fraud, pride, immorality, even bloodshed and murder—as was the case with King David, who is said to have been a “man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14 & Acts 13:22).
There was nothing intrinsically perfect, or righteous, or holy about any of these people insofar as their general performance here on earth is concerned. But what they all had in common, what got their names recorded in God’s record book, and what still speaks to us today is their faith. They didn’t give up on God because He never gave up on them. Did they stumble? Oh yes—some of them quite badly from a human perspective. Does the evil one, our adversary, have plenty of reason to accuse them as careless, and sometimes even deliberate, lawbreakers? Oh yes! In fact, if we wanted to dwell on most of these people’s track records, we would have plenty to gossip about.
Most of these people who are mentioned in God’s great Hall of Faith would, likely, not be particularly welcome in most of our churches today. Or, if they were allowed to attend, that’s about all they would be allowed to do. They would only be permitted to sit in the pew and, maybe, partake of the communion; oh, and put a little money in the collection bowl, of course. But would they be allowed to serve in any kind of a public way? Not likely. Can you imagine allowing an adulterer and murderer, like King David, to serve in the position of being a shepherd, a pastor, an elder in today’s church? Can you imagine allowing a harlot, like Rahab, to teach a Sunday school class? In many, if not most, of our churches today, no way!
And therein lies one of the biggest problems with modern Christianity and, perhaps, the biggest obstacle to global evangelism and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with all the world. Our religious pride! When, oh when, please tell me, did the church give up being a place of refuge, a place of love and healing for the spiritually weak, sick, and hurting and become a social club for the spiritually elite? When did we decide that it was okay to practice a dual level of fellowship within God’s forever family—you know, with the kind of ranking system we employ that says: “You’re good, you’ve never stumbled, you’ve never fallen (at least publicly), you believe all the right doctrines and practice all the right traditions in just right ways, so we love you and you get to be a full-fledged member with all the rights and privileges of a first-class citizen in the kingdom. Oh, but YOU, oh no… no, we know some little something, something, about your track record and the sin in your life. You’ve stumbled, you’ve fallen, you’re not pure and unblemished so we’re not going to extend our love and fellowship to you or let you fully participate; in fact, we’re going to relegate you to second-class citizenship in the kingdom.”
Do you think people in the world around us don’t see this hypocrisy? In my view, they not only see it, but it’s the number one reason why most rational, sound thinking people don’t want anything to do with modern, organized “churchianity.” It is NOT that the world is so offended by the sin, the shortcomings, and the moral failures that they see in church that turns them away—pretty much everybody knows that we’re all human and subject to sin and weakness. But what IS so offensive is when church going people behave as if they’re better than others because they themselves feel like they don’t sin and fall short of the glory of God—which, of course, the Bible says everyone does (Romans 3:23). The hypocrisy that turns the world away is not people claiming to love God but falling short of His glory and, therefore, having to constantly call upon His grace. The hypocrisy that turns the world away is people claiming to love God and acting as if they themselves do not fail Him, have never failed Him—at least, not in any of the big ways—and, therefore, have no great need to constantly call upon His grace.
So, where does that leave me… and you? I’m reminded of Jesus’ little parable that He told to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. He said, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee [religious leader] and the other a tax collector [scum of the earth]. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NASB).
Way back in the day, the Christian rock band, D.C. Talk, recorded a somewhat popular song entitled, “What if I Stumble.” It was included on their “Jesus Freak” album. The powerful lyrics ask the question: “What if I stumble? What if I fall? What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all? Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl? What if I stumble? And what if I fall?” (McKeehan, 1995).
So, yeah, what IF I stumble, what IF I fall? Naw… naw, naw, not “if” I stumble, not “if” I fall, but “when” I stumble and “when” I fall—for the Bible says: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).
Well then, WHEN I stumble and WHEN I fall, and anybody who knows me well knows that I have stumbled and I do fall, where does that leave me in my relationships with others? I guess, from one perspective, it means that it’s pretty much all over for me—at least, as far as the modern churches of today are concerned. The church has its reputation to worry about, you know? And because I am sometimes weak, because I often struggle with sin and temptation, because I am given to wicked tendencies against which I must continually fight, therefore, I guess I’m no longer worthy of being considered a first-class member of the church. In fact, since I so often find myself letting people down and not living up to their expectations, or even my own expectations, let alone God’s expectations, I guess that makes me a hypocrite and, as such, I might as well just give it up and quit falutin with the spiritually elite. I sure don’t want to tarnish anybody’s reputation.
But the Hebrew writer, in this passage of scripture, doesn’t seem to agree with that sentiment. Thank You, Lord! He seems to be aware of his reader’s proclivity to sin and weakness. He doesn’t seek to justify sin and ungodliness. But he doesn’t deny it either. He admits that it “easily entangles us” while admonishing us to “lay aside every encumbrance and sin.” And, instead of giving up and quitting, he encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” He likens it to being in a long-distance race in which we’re surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses”—all those beautiful people who, despite their own weaknesses and the trials and tribulations that assailed them, refused to give up. They remained faithful, so you remain faithful, too. Their lives bear witness to God’s faithfulness, and He will be faithful to you, as well. So don’t give up!
Just like runners are supposed to be focused on the finish line, rather than being distracted by everything else going on all around them, you need to be “fixing your eyes on Jesus.” Stay focused on Him. It’s all about Jesus, not other people. It’s all about Him, not the church. People will let you down and disappoint you. The church will sometimes discourage, rather encourage, you with their double-standards and hypocrisy. But it’s not about them. It’s all about Him. He is the very foundation of your faith. He is the One who has initiated, or authored, your faith by His own life and teaching. Furthermore, He will grow, mature, and perfect your faith mile after mile, all along the way, as you continue your run.
And when you feel like you’re running all alone, you’re mid-way through the race, you’re way on the backside and no one is watching, no one is cheering you on, it hurts to take another step and you’re tempted to quit, think about all that Jesus has endured and why He did it.
And just why did He do it? The Hebrew writer says, “Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross despising the shame” (verse 2). I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much joy in having to endure a cross—the pain and agony of a cruel, slow death; the shame and public ridicule at being pronounced a criminal and suspended between heaven and earth in humiliation for all the world to see. But amidst all that agony there was joy. And it was the joy that kept Him there, hanging in agony on the cross. That joy, my friend, was you and me—and the fact He was doing it for us; so that we could have the hope of eternal life with Him. We were, are, His joy… wow!
The whole world knows that everybody, Christians included, blows it. Everybody stumbles. Yes, everybody falls. But what people cannot abide is a self-righteous, hypocritical, attitude of denial and elitism. That mentality plays right into Satan’s hands. What the world needs to see more of is not just people being good, and doing their best to live a holy life that honors God, but just as importantly, they need to see Christians, when they do stumble and fall, running to Jesus, reaching out for the God’s grace, trusting His love, and turning to the blood of Christ—His sacrificial death on the cross—for forgiveness; and to the Holy Spirit for the strength He provides to not quit—“to not grow weary and lose heart”—but to keep on fighting the good fight of faith!
Oh my Lord God, Heavenly Father, only begotten Son, Holy Spirit, three in One… humbly I come before You, oh divine Trinity, by the intercession of the Spirit who speaks for me with words too deep for human utterance, and by the mediation of my High Priest, Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior, thanking You and praising You that, even in my imperfections and sins, You still love me and have provided the means for me to remain in an intimate, loving, and life-giving relationship with You. Oh Lord God, You know that I do stumble. You know that I do fall. When I confess my sins before You, it is not as if You did not already know. Yet, You bid me run to You. You invite me into Your presence. You allow me to talk with You and pour out my heart to You. Thank You, oh Lord God, for the gift of prayer, for the gift of forgiveness, for the gift of eternal life with You made possible through the gift of Your Son who lived and died on the cross for me. And thank You, oh Lord, for every spiritual gift in the heavenly places that You have lavished upon me in and through Your Son.
Oh God, I cry out to You because there is none else to whom I would or could cry. I have sinned. I have stumbled. I have fallen. There is not a day that goes by wherein I do not fall short of Your glory. There is not a single second of a single minute of a single hour of a single day that I do not need the blood of Jesus Christ my Lord to wash me and cleanse me of my sin, or the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord to clothe me and hide my shame. People, in small ways and in big ways, have despised me; and not without good reason. I have failed them. I have failed everyone I love. I have failed myself. I have failed You. But while I know that I do not live up to the expectations of others, or even to my own expectations, and certainly not to Your expectations, I want You to know, oh Lord God, and I trust that You do know, that in my heart I repent and long to do better. Lord God, I do not seek to justify my sin, I do not seek to embrace my sin, I do not wish my sins, past or present, to continue or to in any way define my life. Rather, I seek to set aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles me and run with endurance the race that is set before me. May Your Holy Spirit infuse me with the strength I need to defeat the enemy, my adversary, who seeks to continually beat me up with fear and guilt and destroy my faith. Oh God, keep my feet on the narrow trail and on the paths of righteousness down which You seek to lead me for Your own name’s sake. And may I, in both my strengths and my weaknesses, always seek to bring You glory!
McKeehan, T. and Joseph D. (1995). What If I Stumble [Song Lyrics]. As performed by D.C. Talk. On Jesus Freak [record album]. London-Hollywood: ForeFront/Virgin Records.
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