Theology in 3D

The Sprint for Peace and Holiness (Part 1)

Greg Stiekes | January 18, 2018
New Testament

Hebrews 12:1–3 is one of those great go-to passages you often hear preached at the beginning of a new year, because the author of the letter encourages us to press on in our faithful pursuit of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Normally, the NT metaphor of the race brings to our minds images of our modern athletics, especially of the Olympic games. But even though the author is no doubt recalling the Olympic games in his own time, we do not get the right sense of his illustration if we filter it through our contemporary understanding of athletics. In our time, sports competition often focuses on achievement through personal endurance, and celebrates the magnificence of the human spirit. Strength and ability are said to come from within, and disciplined athletes “bring home gold” when they are able to reach deep inside themselves. A familiar example is American swimmer Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic gold medals than the athletes in 108 entire countries.Furthermore, the sports industry today is big business, and even the Olympics, which brings together many nations in a show of goodwill, can become embroiled in political controversy.

Not so the Olympics of the ancient world. Those Olympics were conceived by people with a pagan worldview, which means at least that they looked for their strength and achievement from someone outside of themselves. Specifically, the games were held in honor of Zeus, to whom the runners would sacrifice prior to the race, hoping that he would smile upon them with victory. Furthermore, the games originally consisted of foot races only, normally the length of 176 meters, or a stadia (whence “stadium”), so that the runners ran with the goal always in sight. So, these ancient athletes did not merely run, they sprinted. That is why the original Olympics provided an apt parallel for “running the Christian race.” The authors knew nothing about the frivolous, affluent, and often self-serving nature of our modern sports culture. To them, to be running a race was to be running swiftly ahead for the honor and glory of a higher being with the ultimate goal in sight. In the context of Hebrews, we run for the glory of God with our eyes on the risen Christ, our goal to remain faithful to him unto the end.

But even though many New Year’s sermons often end at Hebrews 12:3, the racing metaphor does not. In fact, the image of the runner continues to give nuance to the writer’s exhortation all the way into verse 17. In 12:13–14 the author exhorts,

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

In other words, “If you have faltered, get back into the race! Keep running!”

It is at this juncture, however, that the author appears to restate the goal of the race. He continues,

14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

The verb translated “strive” is an intense Greek word that normally means “to persecute” (e.g., Matt 5:10–12John 15:20Acts 9:4–5Gal 1:13). But in this context it is used for racing or sprinting toward a goal, the way Paul uses the word in Phil 3:12 (“I press on toward the goal for the prize …”). Toward what goal are we to strive? As the verse says, “peace” and “holiness.” I do not think that the author is detracting from the ultimate goal of faithfulness to Christ. What I think he is doing here is showing us what running the race looks like in practical terms.

Why peace and holiness? Because these two virtues describe the essence of how a church behaves if its members are running the race with endurance. These virtues are essential evidences that we are “making straight paths for our feet” (Heb 12:13). They have implications for our relationship with the Lord as well as implications for our relationship with others who know the Lord.

SPRINTING FOR PEACE

Peace with all people, in context, has to do with being at peace with our brothers and sisters in the church. Genuine peace and harmony is our testimony to a fragmented and broken world that reconciliation—peace with God (Rom 5:1)—is possible through Christ. For if we cannot get along with each other who have peace with God, how can we ever convince the unbelievers in a broken world that they can also have peace with God? As Jesus told his disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Because this harmony is essential, Paul urgently appeals to the Ephesian church in Eph 4:3 to endeavor to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” In other words, to be eager to maintain the unity that the Holy Spirit gives to the church by means of living at peace with one another. Oneness in the church is a gift from the Holy Spirit, but we can lose that gift if we do not maintain it.

All of this means that when we forget to put others before ourselves, when we stop looking for ways to serve others in the body of Christ, or when we want pride of place, when we insist on our own way or grapple for attention, when we complain against one another, when we ignore one another, when we look the other way when we know someone is in need, when we refuse to fellowship with one another or care for one another, we are no longer running toward the goal that Christ intended.

In my experience, I am uncertain that believers commonly realize how indispensable is the genuine love and oneness that ought to flourish in our churches. But the Lord created us to be, among other things, an oasis of peace and wholeness in a world torn apart by sin. We serve the Lord who told us, “You will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29). Whenever anyone comes into our assembly they ought to sense our devotion to God, surely. And our eagerness to fulfill the Great Commission. But they must also sense, “This is a place of peace.” A place of rest. A place where people are assured of their standing with God, because of his great grace through Christ. A place where people extend that grace to one another, where the only person exalted is Christ himself.

SPRINTING FOR HOLINESS

But the writer of Hebrews continues by saying we should also sprint for “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Notice how he emphasizes holiness. He tells us why holiness is important by reminding us that we will never be with the Lord—we will never have eternal life; we will, in fact, experience God’s eternal condemnation reserved for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41)—unless we are holy like God is holy (cf. 1 Pet 1:16).

How can we be holy like God? We can’t. It’s impossible. That is why we need someone representing us who is himself holy like God. And that representative is the point of Hebrews. In this letter, Jesus Christ becomes our righteous High Priest, who ever lives to intercede for those who have come to him by faith (Heb 7:25), representing us before God’s throne those who he will bring as his sons and daughters to glory (Heb 2:10).

But notice that the author still tells us to “strive” for, or sprint after holiness (12:14). How do we run for something that has been already given to us as a gift when we trusted Christ? In the same way that the Holy Spirit makes us to be at peace with God, and yet we are told to make that peace known by our behavior with one another, so also we are made holy when the Holy Spirit unites us with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:22 Cor 1:1), yet we must make that holiness known by our attitudes and our behavior toward God and toward one another.

We celebrate both of these virtues, peace and holiness, that God has given to us through Christ. But we must also live our lives so that what has been given to us is manifested in all that we think and all that we do. In practical terms, that’s what Christian runners look like when they are truly running the race. So, how is your sprinting?

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4 responses to “The Sprint for Peace and Holiness (Part 1)”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Thank you for this post, Greg! Both encouraging and challenging. On a side note, regarding your comments on the Olympic metaphor and its pagan background…. I suppose that this could be taken as justification for our own use of aspects of contemporary culture as illustrations of biblical truth. And not just illustrating but showing how the essence of/longing behind these cultural elements finds its true/climactic expression in Christ. Of course, this sort of thing can be abused, but it seems there is a point to be made here. We see the same sort of thing in cases where Paul cited pagan poets. Thoughts?

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      I suppose that’s true. What I was trying to show here is the advantage of paganism over secularism, at least in terms of worldview. A true secularist believes in nothing outside of himself and what he can see in the phenomenal world. And, sadly, even Christians can behave as secularists if they do not process their world according to ultimate truth. A pagan worships a false god. But he at least worships something beyond himself, attributing what he sees in the phenomenal world to another being. Do the authors of the NT, when using the running metaphor mean to overtly ask the pagans to substitute their false God for the Creator God? I don’t think so. But I do think we can better understand the implications of the metaphor in the minds of the ancients.

  2. Matt Herbster says:

    Thanks so much for this article, Pastor! It is so tempting to focus on unity to the exclusion of holiness or vice versa. Good reminders to keep our focus on the goal.

  3. Greg Stiekes says:

    I’m glad you made that observation, Matt! In Part 2 I’m going to explain why we cannot have holiness without peace, and why we cannot have peace without holiness.

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