Just as a trainer uses the equipment and facilities of a gymnasium to prepare an athlete for agonizing contests, your life is God’s gymnasium where He wants to build your spiritual self discipline and endurance until you can meet any of life’s challenges with trust in Him that will produce grace and peace in you.
Are you ready for more stress?
In the 40 centuries since God spoke to Abraham, many significant changes have taken place but only in the last one have we seen such large and rapid changes in the political momentum of the globe. We are more crowded. The population of the Earth mushroomed from 1.5 to 7 billion. Political changes that used to take centuries are happening in decades. World-wide empires dissolved this last century. The superpowers that replaced them have already waned. Vast migrations of people groups have taken place.1Now large international unions are forming2 that promise to contain most of the planet’s nations in the coming decades. But no change in the last 100 years has been as significant as the demonic uprising within Great Britain and the United States. Centuries in the making, its visible outbreak between the mid ’50s to mid ’70s has left the once strong influence of Christianity on western civilization now breathing its last gasp 5 decades later. Five generations of Americans have been indoctrinated by a school system that has steadily grown determined to exterminate the Judeo-Christian world view. It is now uncontrollable. Persecution of Christians is at an all time high world-wide.3 There is no reason to believe the global hostility toward God’s word and His people will diminish.
In light of all this it’s natural to ask what God wants His people to do to prepare themselves. The answer is to continue the same things He has told us to focus on all along. Biblical authors all hold that correct Biblical teaching is crucial to the people of God but that’s not all we need. God’s plan for His children has always been more than teaching information. He wants to train His children to endure any challenge they face whether it be persecution, disease, deformity, loss, addiction, family conflict or any anything else without defeat not only for their own benefit but also to show through them that He is worth trusting.
In this study I hope you will see 4 things:
- God plans for all Christians to be challenged with suffering and evil.
- He has a plan for training us to be able to handle any difficulty with grace, confidence and peace.
- You and I can choose the extent of our participation in God’s training and therefore the way in which we are able to face life.
- Our mutual care for one another is an essential part of God’s plan for us to defy spiritual defeat all our lives.
Testimonies to God’s success
As you may know chapter 11 of Hebrews contains a roster of people who endured hardship to the very end of their lives without giving up their trust that God would keep His word. Their epitaph is contained in these four verse:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the Earth.”4 ((All Bible quotations are from the NASB95 version unless otherwise noted.)) But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”((Hebrews 11:16)) And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.”5
These folk are presented to encourage us to keep a larger perspective, to live now in light of life lasting longer than this body we are currently in. But what about the daily grind and unexpected problems we have to face until we get there? That’s where God’s training plan of Hebrews chapter 12 comes in. We’ll look at the first 17 verses and if you’ll trust my method, we’ll start with verses 4-11, then the first 3, finishing with 12-17.
The Gymnasium of Life
As you read Hebrews 12:4-11 be aware that the author addresses both men and women as God’s spiritual sons because we are all heirs6.
You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have [completely] forgotten7 the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
All throughout Hebrews the author’s quotes scripture8, then explains and applies it. Verse 5 and 6 quote Prov 3:11–12. What follows is his exposition.
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
Discipline is something you develop not just something you do.
The 11 references to discipline in the English indicates its importance, however we need to be certain our idea of the word is the same as the author’s. Unfortunately it isn’t. The Greek word translated into “discipline” had a very different image associated with it in the first century than today.
To understand that ancient meaning we’ll first consider the single Greek word translated into the phrase “have been trained” in verse 11. It’s a verb that sounds similar to the English word gymnasium and refers to being trained in one. Like today, the Greeks and Romans trained for public athletic contests in one.
But much more importantly, the gymnasium was also a place where a young man was prepared to take his place in cultured society. To be a cultured adult in Greek society meant being virtuous. Unlike us, their whole idea of virtue was synonymous with having moderation in all things. Then, as now, moderation was developed through disciplined mental education and physical training which were considered inseparable.
The idea of culture was sacred to the Greeks and so its preparation was a serious undertaking. A carefully selected slave called a pedagogue, would tutor sons in reading, writing, philosophy, religion, physical strength and courage. The process and its goal was referred to by various forms of the Greek word paideía (pie-day’-ah). A form of the word appears in Acts 7:22 where we are told that “Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians” meaning that Moses didn’t just learn about Egypt but became disciplined in all aspects of Egyptian culture. He became Egyptian.
Perhaps you’ve guessed that it is one of the forms of paideía9 that has been translated into the word “discipline” throughout our text. Hopefully you can see that the original word refers to a multifaceted process of preparing one’s whole person to have a certain disciplined approach to life.
All education requires motivation that can be unpleasant and painful.
Life in this world has it’s disappointments, frustrations, pains and unpleasant consequences. God wants to use them all to motivate and train us. So when we find ourselves facing a frustration, loss, or the Holy Spirit’s conviction, we are being given an assignment in God’s school of righteous living. That’s when we need to crack open the textbook of His word, follow His instructions even when they don’t feel right, and be inspired by the same reward as the faithful of Chapter 11: to be with God in a better land for eternity.
In math class it’s a mistake to think one homework problem is all you need to develop disciplined skill. So too, in God’s gymnasium of life is takes facing difficulties several times before we find it natural to trust Him in future hardships. However I’ve observed that every exercise builds into us a bit of the peaceful fruit of righteousness that comes in the 7 flavors Paul mentioned in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. And that’s God’s goal, to be like Him as well as to experience peace and right responses.
The Message, a popular paraphrase, helps us see God’s intent:
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what seemed best to them. But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God’s holy best.”10
You can lead a horse to water …11
Of course, we have a choice. We can skip school and try our own program. Realize that persisting at that will eventually produce spiritual defeat and lack of endurance. It’s signs are emotional exhaustion, worry, bitterness, and poor moral choices that can lead to the abandonment of any attempt to trust God for practical needs. It’s an unpleasant path.
I hope you see that by drawing on this ancient cultural image of purposeful training the author shows us that Proverbs 3:11-12 is meant to give us hope and confidence in God’s method of training us through life’s challenges to have endurance of faith rather than to simply scare us with a threat of punishment. Like the pedagogue of old, God wants to tutor us toward responsible and contented citizenship in His kingdom and sometimes we have to experience some hardship of work to get there.
The Race called Life
Now that we understand that God’s plan is to use the gymnasium of life to train us, we are ready to talk about stamina. Let’s read Hebrews 12:1-3
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.”
When old enough, a young Greek or Roman man would show off his gymnasium training by participating in intense foot races in stadiums full of spectators.
As all athletic competitions demonstrate the mental and physical discipline that has been developed through training, a Christian’s responses to life’s challenges demonstrate the outcome of their spiritual training. Our author likens a race to our whole lives. But unlike this athletic race we are not to focus on winning but rather on enduring the stress with the faith that God will fulfill His promises. The goal is to finish life with endurance of faith that all can see.
The race course is clearly marked
It’s interesting to note that the Greek word translated “race” in verse 1 is actually similar to the English word agony in sound and meaning. God acknowledges that life is a tough challenge. But it’s not a course we get to choose. Each of us has our own course to run, our own ordeals. We can’t anticipate all of life’s major twists and turns, but the course we need to pay attention to is the one set right in front of our noses, the things you and I are facing today. This reminds me of Jesus words
… do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”12
Don’t run with weights
Roman soldiers would sometimes race several miles dressed for battle and carrying 40 lbs of weapons and armor. That would certainly leave me face down in the dirt and in a doctor’s care. However that’s not the race we are called to run. We must run with the least load. God’s instruction is to dump anything that keeps us from distrusting God because it will wear us out or cause us to fall. Why try to demonstrate endurance of faith by loading yourself up with personal desires and goals that don’t demonstrate God’s trustworthiness? I wonder if the church in America is so weighed down with things they love that they don’t realize that their weakness of faith is their own doing. The author mentions getting rid of sin, but how much endurance of faith in God can be seen in you while you try to carry on your back your beloved house, car, or some other attachment that seems so essential you won’t give it up without a fight?
Run like Jesus did
Jesus focused on God’s goal for His life, enduring an agonizing death and people’s abuse while trusting God’s promise that what was ahead of Him was far better than anything this creation has to offer. He said to us
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.”13
The cloud of witnesses Chapter 11 held up as examples of faith didn’t lead perfect lives. They failed at times, but overall each one endured hardship and obedience to gain the reputation that they lived by God’s power. That’s our goal. The cloud of witnesses isn’t watching, it’s waiting. It’s the people around us who are the spectators in our stadium. They’re the ones God wants to be challenged by His trustworthiness as they watch our lives.
The author has thrown down a challenge.
Are we willing to see life’s events, including the unfair ones, as opportunities for developing our faith muscles so we can demonstrate endurance of faith to the end of our days? Only you know the answer.Footnotes
- Pew Research Center, Wikipedia [↩]
- Regional Organization, List of Economic Unions, Eurasian Economic Union [↩]
- Christian News [↩]
- Hebrews 11:13 [↩]
- Hebrews 11:39–40 [↩]
- We try to understand words as they author used them so we have to understand the author’s culture. [↩]
- The perfect tense is used indicating a complete lapse of memory [↩]
- His Scripture was the Greek version what most Christians call the Old Testament. The Greek version was called the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX. [↩]
- pie-day’-ah [↩]
- Hebrews 12:7–10 The Message [↩]
- doesn’t mean it will drink [↩]
- Matthew 6:34 [↩]
- Matthew 10:24–25a [↩]