The pain involved in following the Lord Jesus Christ in a hostile world is never hidden from us in Scripture. The early Hebrew Christians to whom this epistle seems first to have been written were no strangers to “reproaches and afflictions” (11:33), especially while the Jerusalem Temple was still standing and those who rejected the Messiah were largely in control of the culture. How well they knew that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (v. 11). Echoes of the whips that lacerated the back of Jesus at times lashed their own backs. Like many Christians in not a few countries today, they knew just what “scourging” meant.
At such times, one either gives up and gives in to societal pressures in order to win a temporary reprieve from pain and grief, or else one holds on with patient endurance. We Americans and Europeans know next to nothing of this (though it may soon enough change), but believers in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and China would identify readily with these words from the prisons and labor camps in which they are slaving and rotting. Christians under unbelieving Israel and pluralistic, emperor-worshiping Rome understood the choice before them only too well.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Hebrews, summarized the whole point of Hebrews 11 and 12 as being God’s incentive to patience for His people in hard times (and perhaps most of history, and much of our lives involves some kind of hardness). By “patience” he meant not just passive endurance, but active holding on and fighting one’s way forward to something better. It is an active virtue, even though it entails passive submission.
The author of Hebrews teaches that the faith that supplies us with both humdrum and heroic endurance, above every other consideration, involves us in “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (12:2). The victorious Old Testament witnesses (12:1) somehow were looking towards a Messiah to come. Like runners who must take off their backpacks and overcoats in order to free their shoulders and feet for a successful race, the saints of old gave up anything and everything to make it to the heavenly city. We are not better than our fathers, and the only race worth winning can require no less from us.
As Head of His Church, Christ functioned as the Last Adam (who through His sinlessly holy and universally obedient, but painful life, and through His atoning, sacrificial death and resurrection, more than regained for us what the first Adam lost for our race [Rom. 5:12–21]). To use the words of the second-century church Father Irenaeus of Lyon, Christ as Last Adam faithfully “recapitulated” the failed career of the first Adam. The first Adam lost it for us, and the Last Adam wins it all back for us!
But how much it cost Him to do so! A marvelous twentieth-century Welsh hymn by Vernon Higham says it beautifully:
O bitter cup, O costly task,
To meet the wrath of God’s own holiness!
The Saviour stood, and in my stead He died,
My soul to bless.
O love of God, O wondrous grace,
That such an angry death of anguish sore
Should pay my penalty and make me whole —
O boundless store!
As God’s dear children, we, who are by grace adopted, are called into the fellowship of suffering, soon enough to be followed by stupendous glory, with the only begotten Son. The suffering precedes the glory; the cross precedes the crown, both in the order of experience of the eternal Son of God and also in that of adopted sons and daughters of God. Similarly, 2 Corinthians 4:17–18 says: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Although Jesus’ death alone, received through faith, plus nothing else, saves us body, soul, and spirit, yet somehow the earthly suffering of believers in fellowship with their Lord helps make that salvation real to others. What Colossians 1:24 says about the apostle Paul is certainly true in its own way for every believer: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.”
Beatings, stonings, accusations from false brethren, imprisonments, a “thorn in the flesh,” and shipwrecks broke open “the clay vessel” of the apostle’s life, so that the divine light of the risen Christ could shine out and be apprehended by lost men and women (see 2 Cor. 4:6 –12). With this goal in mind, Paul could finally say about all of his chastisement and sufferings: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me … for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
John Calvin wisely said that progress in Christian experience involves three things: self-denial (we choose to take that step ourselves), cross-bearing (God’s wise providence puts this upon us), and meditation on the future life — to which Scripture constantly calls us (see Institutes book 3, chapters 6–10). If this was the divinely chosen way for Christ and for His Apostle to the Gentiles, how could we expect it not to be God’s way for all of us? By it, we are made “partakers of his holiness.” And that is something a cynical world needs to see more than anything else. The holiness of Christ worked down deep into His people through their identification with Him in His self-sacrificial suffering is a most mighty weapon to break hearts of stone!