COLOSSIANS #23: THE SOURCE OF LIFE

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 There is no life in external things like bad stuff happening, or even good stuff happening.  If we live by our circumstances, or how we feel, we will be constantly going up and down, back and forth. Our text today tells us to seek life in the things of the spirit, not in our circumstances or flesh. We can be OK, no matter what is going on around us, or even in our own bodies. Our life is hidden in Christ with God, and that is where we draw our strength, joy and peace.

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Colossians #23. Colossians 3:1-4

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV, Colossians 3:1-4)

In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul explains that those who trust Jesus have been buried with Jesus by faith, in baptism, and that they have also been raised with Christ. Again, in verse 20, he says, “since you died with Christ, don’t be sucked into living according to the principles of this world.” He has been telling us things to avoid: legalism, religious hypocrisy, trying to justify ourselves to God, or somehow add to what Jesus has done for us.

Now, he begins with the other side of the equation. In Jesus, we died to the basic principles of this world. That means, says Paul, you have been raised with Christ to a new kind of life. Since you have this new life in Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Set your minds on the things above, not on the things of earth.

I want to dive into this deeply, because it is so important. To help us, let’s briefly consider the life of the prophet Elijah. He lived in ancient Israel, during a dark time of history. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. Even so, he hid from the king and queen for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and the cloud formed and a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done….ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further. Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence.

Many translations say, “a still small voice.” I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The important thing is that when Elijah heard the silent voice, he went out and listened to the Lord. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing! But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

Remember how God showed himself to Elijah. He was not in the storm, or the earthquake or the fire. Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still.

This is what Paul is saying to us: “Your real life is in the spirit, through Jesus. Set your mind on spiritual things, not in how your life is going.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn to how cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life from Externals.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks here on earth. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). The word for “tested” or “tempted” is the Greek word pronounced “peiradzo.” Some English translations say “tempted” but it doesn’t really mean just temptation to sin. It means undergoing trials to determine an outcome. In other words, this is life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt. If Jesus could not throw a lasso around life and make it behave for him, do you really think you can?

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – that can be a daunting idea. “You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going live holy again?”

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life out of our behavior. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

The reason there is no life in these things is because they all take place on the outside of us – in our flesh. Paul has been telling us that our flesh is already dead through Christ. We’re done with it. There is no life there. Let’s go back to how human beings are made. The scripture says there are three parts to humans: Body, Soul, and Spirit

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 (ESV)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

It’s a different Greek word for each one: soma (body) psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). The body is fatally infected by sin. It is going to die. Everyone dies in this way. Sometimes, the New Testament calls a sin-infected body “the flesh.”

The soul is where we have our mind and personality. It is connected both to the body, and also to the spirit. It is the go-between, the middle. You might say the soul is where spiritual battles take place. Our soul can tell our flesh to stop doing something it wants to do, or to keep doing it. I believe that the souls of Christians will be made perfect and holy and complete when they are given new resurrection-bodies.

The spirit is the part of us that interacts with spiritual things. Those who do not trust Jesus have spirits that are dead to God (but alive to the influence of evil spiritual power). When we trust Jesus, our spirits are made alive to God, whole, perfect and holy, and dead to sin. The condition of your spirit, in Jesus, never changes. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely. Your spirit is fine if things are going well in your life. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely fine if things are going badly in your life. If you belong to Jesus, your life – your truest life, your spirit-life is already with Christ in God.

Now we can better understand what Paul was saying to the Colossians, and what God was showing Elijah. Life comes from God, through our spirit, into our soul, and then out into our behavior. If we want true life, we need to fix our thoughts and ambitions and desires upon the things of the spirit. These are what Paul calls “things above.” When we have real spirit life, we are no longer controlled by what the body/flesh wants. One of my bible school teachers put it this way:

“There are two dogs inside of you. A good dog, and an evil one. They are fighting each other for control over you.”

“Which dog wins?” asked someone.

“Whichever one you feed,” she said.

Paul is telling us to feed the good dog by setting our hearts, minds and will upon the things of the spirit. This is one reason that reading the Bible regularly is so important. I started reading the bible daily when I was thirteen years old. I’ve had spells when it wasn’t daily, but in general, I’ve continued ever since. Now, reading the Bible like that did not, in and of itself make me more holy. It certainly did not make God love me any more than he already did, and it didn’t make him love me any more than he loves people who don’t read their bible. But what it did do was to shape my thinking and my emotions toward the things of the spirit. It feeds the good dog, and weakens the bad one.

Paul also tells us that our spirit life, for the time being, is hidden with Christ in God. That means that the condition of your spirit it is not always evident to the world, or even to you. The Greek word for “hidden” in verse three is the basis for our English word cryptic. That means it is sometimes difficult to see or understand.

Paul makes sure, in verse 4, that we know there will come a day when the spirit-life will be fully revealed: fully evident to yourself and to all others. But that does not  change in what is happening with your spirit. It is only a change in that it was hard to see before, and when Jesus returns, it will be fully manifested.

Because we are already perfect and complete and holy in our spirit-self, Paul urges us strongly to seek to focus on  spiritual reality, rather than flesh reality. Let our souls, and then our bodies be influenced primarily by the spirit, rather than the flesh. To do so is not complicated: read your Bible, understanding that spiritual-reality is greater and eternal, while flesh-reality will eventually die. Develop community with other believers who are trying to do the same thing. Pray – have an on going conversation with God all day long. I know of a couple who communicate constantly throughout the day, by phone. They probably call each other dozens of times each day, and often they pass the time while they are doing the shopping or laundry or whatever else, talking to each other even while accomplishing other tasks. We need to do this with Jesus, also. Leave the phone line always open, connected. You can pray while hanging drywall. You can pray while fishing, or grocery shopping, or mowing the yard or entering data. Or, writing a sermon (thanks for that one, Lord.)

Paul says almost the same thing in to the Philippians that he did to the Colossians:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV, Philippians 3:18-21)

Be encouraged. If you know Jesus, all is well in your spirit, not matter what else is going on. You all know that these aren’t just words for me. For five years I’ve felt physically like I have a knife blade broken off in my left kidney. We’ve spent thousands of dollars looking for answers, and received none. But my spirit-reality matters much more than my body-reality. I do get frustrated. I do break down sometimes. But those of you who know me personally also know that my spirit-reality matters more to me than this, and that is why I’m really OK, and will continue to be OK, even if I don’t get healing until I die. This body won’t last forever, but my spirit will. So set your mind, seek, pursue, meditate on, prioritize, things above, things of the spirit, not things of the body and the flesh.

Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

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It is important for us to understand the world that these Colossian Christians lived in, so that we can see why Paul wrote what he did, and how they would have understood and applied it to their lives.

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Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small town in an area of the world that we would now call southern Turkey. It was three to five days’ journey east from the large city of Ephesus. In order to understand this book of the Bible, it is important to know a little bit about the kind of world those Colossian Christians lived in.

By that point in history, virtually all of the land within two-hundred miles of the Mediterranean sea had been conquered first by Greeks, and then by Romans. Though there were still local customs and languages, for the most part, everybody spoke Greek, and participated in what we call “Greco-Roman culture.”

Colossians has a lot to say about worshipping God. A big part of that culture was about worshipping various gods. The chief god was Zeus, and his wife was Hera. Apollo was the god of healing, among other things. Hermes was the god in charge of messages and communication. So, if you sent an important letter, you might make an offering to Hermes to make sure it was favorably received. If you wanted healing, you went to the shrine of Apollo. Athena, besides being a goddess of war, was in charge of weaving and pottery, so if you were a craftsman in these trades, you probably worshipped her. In fact, many trades (like baking, blacksmithing, leather working) had guilds, and one of the main things you did in your trade guild was come together and worship the god who was in charge of your trade. Colossians also mentions drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Often times, worshipping the various gods involved feasting, getting drunk, and then having sex in the temple or shrine of the god you worshipped. Generally, they were not having sex with their spouses in this context. So, Paul writes about sexual immorality.

In addition, the Greco-Roman people had a fascination with what they called “mystery religions.” Anything strange and mysterious and weird drew their attention. And, of course, there was a great tolerance of any sort of worship or religion. It was no big deal if one man preferred Apollo, and another Zeus. People didn’t care. But what was not tolerated, what eventually led to persecution, was when Christians said everyone else was wrong. As long as you could agree that your religion was one of several dozen equally valid ways, there was no problem. But it was thought arrogant to claim that your religion was the One True Way. Sound familiar?

The one exception to these sorts of religions was Judaism. Jews worshipped only the one God, and they had a special dispensation by the Roman government, so they were tolerated. By this point in history, however, Jews did not live simply according to the Old Testament. They had developed an elaborate system of laws and theology that went far beyond what the Old Testament teaches. Christians, of course, worship the same One God, though they did not add all of the things added by the Jews, and added instead, the wisdom and truth brought by Jesus Christ.

So, when Jews and Christians met each other, they had this in common: they worshipped only the One true God as revealed first in the Old Testament. They shared some of the moral values that no one else in the culture had. In some times and places Jewish people, recognizing the common ground they had with Christians, sought to turn the Gentile Christians into Jews. In other places, they condemned Jewish Christians, claiming they had fallen away from Judaism. They wanted to make Christians live according to the Jewish laws – even the ones that weren’t in the Bible. Paul writes about this sort of thing in this book of Colossians.

Paul talks about the roles of women and men in the family and the church. Women in that culture were not as free as they are now, but were not as oppressed as some people might think. For example, a woman named Hedea won the war-chariot race in Corinth in the year 43. If a woman won the race, it isn’t a stretch to assume that more than one woman participated. War chariot racing is a violent, physically demanding sport, but apparently, women did it. In many places, the New Testament talks about prominent women who had enough influence to get Christians kicked out of local towns. Lydia was a businesswoman; no mention is made of a man in her life. She appears to be self-sufficient, and no remark is made as if that was particularly unusual. In the first century, in Ephesus, there was a woman holding a position something like what we would call “superintendent of the school district.” Many women had work that required them to travel around the town and do business.

In Rome, at least, marriage was becoming a farce. Divorce was rampant. Men and women swapped wives and husbands like they were at a flea market. There is a marriage record of one woman marrying her twenty-third husband. For the man, she was his twenty-first wife. It was a time and place where sexual immorality was common, and marriage was just not valued. Again, sound familiar?

So we need to understand that Paul’s words about marriage and family were not simply re-affirming what everyone around there believed. They were counter-cultural. Radical, even.

One final cultural thing we should understand: slavery, since Paul briefly mentions that, also. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two types of slavery. The first is what we usually think of when we hear that word. These were slaves used to mine precious minerals, or to work on the Roman war galleys. They were treated little better than animals. They were people who were wholly under the control of their masters, and they were treated horribly. This is not the type of slavery that the New Testament (or Colossians) writes about, since there were no such slaves living in the towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. Most of these were captured in war.

There was, however, another kind of slave. They were “bound” into service to their masters with a legal agreement. But this situation was much like the position of indentured servant that was quite common among white Europeans during the American colonial period. Certainly, they weren’t free to leave their masters without a change in the legal situation. Certainly, they had fewer rights than legally free people. But it was nothing like the race-based chattel-slavery that took place in America during the nineteenth century. Some translations of the Bible translate this type as “bond-servant” which is probably a better term. There were huge numbers of this sort of “slave” in the world at this time. Many of these people were “slaves” only for a period of their life – ten or twenty years. Most of them reasonably expected to – and did, in fact – gain their freedom at some point in life. They were paid for their work, which basically defies the description of “slave.” They could own property themselves – in fact, there are records of slaves owning slaves! They could marry, and have families, and their “owners” could not separate them from their families.

In those days, a slave with an important job for a wealthy, noble family, was often far better off than a free person trying to make a living on their own.

Now, let’s talk about the specific reasons Paul wrote this letter. As far as we know, Paul himself never went to Colossae. For a time, he planted house churches in Ephesus, and apparently, a man from Colossae, named Epaphras, visited Ephesus while Paul was working there. Epaphras became a Christian while he was in Ephesus, and then returned home to Colossae, where he started teaching people to follow Jesus. Many people there became Christians, and one or more house churches were established there. We know that one of the Christians was man named Philemon, and another one was Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus.

A few years later, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, under house arrest, with a fair amount of freedom as he awaited an audience with Caesar. This man Epaphras came to help and encourage him. It appears that Paul had a long talk with Epaphras about how things were going with the church in Colossae, and Paul wrote this letter in response to that conversation.

There were already several people in Rome with Paul, including the slave named Onesimus. In addition there was a man from Ephesus named Tychicus (tik-ki-kis). Tychicus is mentioned several times in the New Testament. It appears that he often traveled with Paul as part of his ministry team, and Paul thought very highly of him. After the arrival of Epaphras, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians (the one we have in our Bible) and possibly another letter to Laodicea, which has been lost. By the way, I like that we know that. It shows that God was in control of what went into the Bible. Not everything Paul wrote was supposed to be part of the Bible, so God, in his providence, allowed that letter to be lost, while, in his providence, others were preserved.

In addition to that lost letter, Paul also wrote this letter to the Colossians, and a letter to Philemon, whom I mentioned above. That letter is also part of the Bible. Tychicus was given the task of carrying the letters to Ephesus and beyond, and also encouraging the Christians in those cities.

All right, with all this background, I want to do something a little different. We will take the text piece by piece, as I normally do. However, it is very helpful to have a sense of the whole thing before we examine each little part. Therefore, please end your time by reading the entire book of Colossians at one sitting, right now. It took me eleven minutes to do so out loud in the spoken version of this sermon. If you prefer to listen to that, it starts at 26:11 in the recorded sermon. As you do so, write down anything that strikes you, and especially, jot down any questions that come up from what you read. However, jot quickly, and keep reading, so you have a sense for what the whole letter feels like.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today through the text!

RUN THE RACE WITH PERSEVERANCE

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All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

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Single Sermons. Hebrews 11.

 I want to do something a little bit different this time. I often go through scripture paragraph-by-paragraph. I think this is helpful in many ways. But we need to remember, when we read on our own, that the Bible was written book-by-book. The best way to read it is first in large chunks, as it was written. After we’ve read the large chunks, then we can go back and break it down, piece by piece. This time, I want us to read one large chunk. The selection below is approximately half as many words as one of my sermons. Taken in this large chunk, it is a kind of mini sermon. So, let’s read it, and then I will add a few thoughts at the end. But don’t read it as prelude. Read it as part of the main body of this message.

HEBREWS CHAPTER 11

​​11 1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. 2 For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.
5 By faith Enoch was taken away so he did not experience death, and he was not to be found because God took him away. For prior to his removal he was approved, since he had pleased God. 6 Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
7 By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the One who had promised was faithful. 12 Therefore from one man — in fact, from one as good as dead — came offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, 18 the one it had been said about, Your seed will be traced through Isaac. 19 He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and he worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, as he was nearing the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions concerning his bones.
23 By faith, after Moses was born, he was hidden by his parents for three months, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they didn’t fear the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter 25 and chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. 26 For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.
27 By faith he left Egypt behind, not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees Him who is invisible. 28 By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites. 29 By faith they crossed the Red Sea as though they were on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do this, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after being encircled by the Israelites for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.
32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead — they were raised to life again. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, 36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

121 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. (Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2. HCSB)

 Faith considers the unseen to be better than what is seen. It considers God’s promises to be better than anything the world has to offer. It draws a line in the dirt and says, “God’s promises are better than anything I could find in this world. Having the promise of God, as yet unseen, is better than having the physical reality of what the world offers.”

I think this message is especially relevant when it comes to our way of doing church in small groups in the home. Sometimes, it seems like no one else is doing it like us. Sometimes, it feels lonely. Sometimes, we wonder if we are really accomplishing anything. But we won’t truly see what are accomplishing until we see Jesus face-to-face. Stay the course. Run the race with perseverance.

I want us to think about verses 13-16:

13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

It might help to think about what these heroes of faith were thinking about. What are the great promises of God that are worth more than anything in this world? The author of Hebrews says that to have this kind of faith we must believe God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Those must be amazing rewards, considering what these people gave up for it. So what are the rewards?

First and foremost, the reward is Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus, we have all the fullness of God’s grace. We can look to receive “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:20).” In Jesus we find, sometimes, temporary healing of our current physical ailments, (James 4:14-16) but always the promise of eternal healing, bodies that do not get sick, die, or decay (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). In Him we have perfect, permanent love; he loves us even more than we love our own children (1 John 3:1; Psalm 103:8-13). Through Jesus we can have true inner peace (Philippians 4:7), no matter what the circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12). Through Jesus, we can also have peace with others, even though we may be very different (Ephesians 2:14). Because of Him, we belong to a new and permanent family, where we are no longer strangers and alien to each other. In Jesus we have undeserved favor; we have the forgiveness of sins, we are made holy and righteous.

The following verses do a great job of summarizing all this:

3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.
7 We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him 10 for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.
11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (HCSB; Ephesians 1:3-14)

The heroes of faith considered all this to be worth far more than anything they might gain on earth. Think about this. Every person you have ever loved, or ever will love in the future, will eventually die. Their corpses will either be burned, or they will disintegrate with time. Everyone who ever knew you and appreciated you will die and rot. You yourself will die, and your body will become fertilizer. Unless you are extremely lucky, the work you do here and now will be forgotten by everyone in the world within a hundred years. Everything and everyone that you try to live for here and now will be destroyed by death.

But the promise of God in Jesus is a permanent home. In that home, the people you love will not die. In that home, the work you do, the things you create, will stand forever.

Like Paul, these faith-heroes considered earthly riches and  achievements as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus

7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8, ESV2011)

These faith-heroes knew what martyr Jim Eliott said nineteen centuries later:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Now, to live like this can be lonely at times. It is so different from the way others live. All around us, people are investing their time and energy in the things of this world, and they seem to be fine; sometimes, even really happy, successful and fulfilled. In our new world of social media, all this gets distorted even more. Just remember, the people you see on the internet are a very carefully cultivated and edited version of the real thing. Just because people look great online doesn’t mean that they are really doing as well as they seem.

The call of our sinful flesh, of the world and of the devil is seductive. They tell us we can find what we need apart from Jesus Christ. But we have four tools to help us live this lonely, different, life of faith. The first tool is the Word of God, the Bible. We must read it, if we are going to persevere in faith. The second tool is presence of God through the Holy Spirit. The third tool is this great cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded, not only with the people mentioned in Hebrews 11, but with two-thousand years more worth of faithful Christians who chose to turn their backs on sin, flesh and the devil. They turned their backs on security, comfort, success, and ran the race with perseverance.

The fourth tool is each other. We who are living differently than the world must band together, and encourage each other. We aren’t as alone as we might feel sometimes. Reach out to each other when it feels difficult. Inspire one another to love and good deeds. So, I say again:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3, ESV2011)