Running the race in the last days Bible study
The entanglement (And it’s time to lose some weight)
by I Gordon
I started last time on a new series about running the race in the last days and we looked specifically at the approaching finish line and the desire to end our race well. I’m going to look at this theme of running the race for a few more studies so you might be tempted to ask me ‘well, what do you know about running races?’ Thanks for asking. I’ll have you know that I was once an area sprint champion. Now, you may say ‘yeah, but it was a pretty small area.’ Yeah... yeah it was. And you may also say ‘and you peaked a bit early.’ Yeah... yeah I did. Looking back I was probably at my best somewhere around 7 ½ years of age. I enjoyed those days. It was an even playing field back then1. By that I mean we all had the same size legs. And while I’ve kept mine my entire life, others upgraded to a much longer set so winning became more difficult going forward.
But thankfully the race we are going to talk about today is definitely not a sprint. None of us know exactly how long it actually will be but for most of us it’s definitely placed in the ‘long distance’ category. It is a race that requires perseverance, dedication and endurance. It’s the Christian life... an extremely important race that you will be judged and rewarded on by the King of kings. No pressure! As mentioned, last time we looked at the approaching finish line and the desire to end well. Today I want to look at something that makes running the race difficult... and what to do about it. I’ve given this message the title of ‘The entanglement’.2 And it comes from a very famous scripture...
Witnesses and endurance
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)
Now there are lots of great themes and aspects to this passage. A lot of scholars think that it should really have been placed at the end of chapter 11 because it is tied in to that message of the journey of faith. The starting ‘therefore’ certainly connects it with the preceding men and women of faith in Chapter 11. They are the ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ that Hebrews 12:1 speaks of. Their lives witness and speak to ours in all that they encountered and pressed on through. Their lives still speak to us saying ‘keep going, keep running, the Lord helped me through it all and He will you too!’ ‘Maintain your faith, keep looking up! Don’t look back!‘ If they could speak today with what they know now what do you think thet would say? I think, knowing what they know now, they would say:
The reward is better,
The finish line closer,
And your race more important,
Than you think!
This passage also tells us that this race is an endurance race. It’s not a sprint like I said earlier. We probably all know people that took off out of the Christian blocks, springing up quickly like a seed in shallow soil… yet with some you wonder, where are they today? If I ran in an Olympic marathon there is a chance, though that chance be very slim (um, like really thin – you may need a microscope with impressive magnification capabilities), that I could be leading… after 100m (if I sprinted with all that I have). Maybe. But that would be the end of me. It would be one of the marathons earliest DNF’s (did not finish after 101m). But this race calls for perseverance. As I read Pilgrim’s Progress again, early in Christian’s journey he meets Pliable. Pliable, is, well, pliable. He can be shaped, molded and adjusted and soon enough agrees to come with Christian on the journey to the Celestial City. They start off making good progress together, until…
“Now I saw in my dream, just as they had finished talking, that they came near to a very miry swamp that was in the middle of the valley. Then suddenly both Christian and Pliable, who were not paying attention to where they were walking, fell into the swamp. The name of the swamp was Despond. They wallowed there until they were both completely covered with mud. Christian, weighed down by the burden on his back, began to sink.
Then Pliable said, “Ah, neighbor Christian, where are you now?”
“Honestly,” said Christian, “I don’t know.”
Christian’s answer offended Pliable, who angrily said to Christian, “Is this the happiness you have been telling me about all the time we have been together? If we have this much difficulty at the beginning of our journey, what may we expect between now and the end of our journey? If I get out of this swamp alive, you can have the brave country that you’re so fond of talking about without me.”
And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two and got out of the mire on the side of the swamp that was nearest to the City of Destruction. So away he went, and Christian never saw him again.’
We probably all know people like that. The Christian race is a marathon. It takes endurance. It takes pressing on through difficulties and not looking or turning back. It takes a mindset that knows and accepts that difficulties are par for the course. It takes a mind that can look away from the difficulty and fix its gaze upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith. And it takes wisdom from above to remove that which is not useful for running a race.
Weights and entanglements
Now maybe you have been a Christian for a while. You are not one of those that springs up quickly but, due to no real root, withers just as quick. So the question in my mind was ‘what is it that established Christians need to be watchful of?’ Jesus and Paul use different analogies but both describe the same thing. Jesus spoke of the thorns, which is worldliness and the cares of this life, slowly encircling and choking the plant. Paul, using the running analogy, speaks of weights and the sin which easily entangles while you try to run. It goes without saying that know one wants to be carrying unnecessary weights around in a race. You might be fine to begin with but after a while they will drain your strength until you get to the point where you have to stop.
The longest race I’ve ever done, which I’ve done a few times, is the Lake Taupo 160Km road cycling race. Believe me... you keep everything as light as possible. I had a little bag under my seat that had essentials like a spare tube and a tiny pump plus some electrolytes and gels... but nothing unneeded or heavy. The whole course is packed with hills, especially in the first 80Km and you soon realise that every bit of extra weight you have has to be pushed up those hills. You may not notice the extra weight for a while… but it slowly takes its toll.
Are you carrying too much weight?
So have you thought about the weights that you may be carrying that just make the Christian race harder to run? The Greek word here is ‘ogkos’ meaning ‘mass, weight, burden, and impediment’. It is interesting that in the natural people are often concerned about weight. Most of us are trying to get rid of some. I asked Mr Google what the 2019 top 10 New Year resolutions were as I was interested to see if ‘losing weight’ made the list. What do you think? Here are the top three:
1. Diet or eat healthier (71 percent)
2. Exercise more (65 percent)
3. Lose weight (54 percent)
All of the top three resolutions are, or are related to, losing weight. But do we even think about it in the spiritual? Have you considered what weights and burdens you are carrying that make the Christian race harder to run? Be aware that weights are not God given trials. Trials are generally used to reduce excess weight! Weights are the things we carry which we don’t need to and would include guilt, unforgiveness, resentment and bitterness. It could be an excessive love of material possessions, comfort and pleasure. Maybe your impediment in this race is a fear that weighs heavily upon you, dragging you down and preventing you from running as you should. It may be legalism, which in the context of the book of Hebrews, was a great weight and one that needed to be let go of. Whatever pulls the soul of man down and turns his eyes away from the Lord is a weight. It is an impediment.
Beware the entanglement
But it is not just weights that make the race difficult. It is also the sin that easily entangles. Imagine trying to run with cords and ropes around you… nose dive! And as mentioned earlier, when Jesus gave his parable about the fruitfulness of the seed he spoke of this entanglement like a plant that grows, but slowly over time gets choked by the thorns coming up around it. To illustrate this choking, what is this?3
I found this on my street. Another careless home owner not looking after their trees. Well, actually it was in my backyard and the negligent home owner is me. It is a 'punga' (a native to New Zealand and also known as the Silver Fern) that has been completely enveloped by ivy that has grown up around it. To be honest I didn’t understand what a curse that ivy could be. I was negligent and just let it go, not realising where it would end. And, try as I might, I couldn’t get it off so in the end I had to chop the tree down. It was just too entwined with the actual plant putting all its little hooks into the punga and living off it. When I looked at it I couldn’t help but be reminded on our text which speaks of the sin which so easily entangles. Below on the left is what might have been. Glorious. Below on the right is what I ended up with. Beware the entanglement!
|What it can / should look like||What mine, through neglect, looked like|
Let’s look at an example of this entanglement from the Bible. I was reading through the kings of Israel over the summer so let’s start with someone who was the best of the lot... King David.
The peril of unconscious decay – King David
2Ch 17:3 The LORD was with Jehoshaphat because he followed the example of his father David's earlier days…
Before looking at David, notice that the scripture says that the later King Jehoshaphat did well because he followed the ways of David’s early years. Even David, who ran so well, like nearly none before him, struggled partly in the second half of his race. And it wasn’t Philistines, giants, javelins thrown by a mad king or spending all his days on the run and sleeping in caves that got him. No, this was all food for faith. It was, in the language of a Hal Lindsey sermon that I heard when I was a young Christian, ‘the peril of unconscious decay’. There was an apathy, like a slow encircling ivy plant, that crept up and around him. A luke-warmness to the things of God and his duties as King set in. There was a gradual choking of the spiritual life brought on my comfort and ease. We see this of course in the lead up to the whole Bathsheba affair. Some may say that David’s problem was with coveting or lust. Yet they were just the result of the unconscious decay. Let's have a look.
2Sa 11:1-2 Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. (2) Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king's house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance.
Verse 3 says ‘And David turned quickly from the sight saying, as did his forefather Joseph, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?" ‘. Well actually no. David wasn’t at this stage strong in the Lord and I think we are aware of what proceeded from here.
The roaming eye lead to lust. Lust lead to coveting. Coveting lead to adultery. Adultery led to pregnancy. Pregnancy lead to lying and deceitfulness and when that didn’t work, it led to the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite - one of David’s own mighty men and most loyal followers. And yet it didn’t start with murder… it didn’t even start with lust and coveting another man’s wife. As F.B Meyer writes:
‘ This was not an isolated sin.
For some time, backsliding had been eating out David ’s heart.
The cankerworm takes its toll before the noble tree crashes to the ground. ’
Look at the little details that the writer of 2nd Samuel includes. Twice he makes mention of the fact that David didn’t go out to battle when the time to do so came. That was his duty as king but He was obviously felt quite comfortable where he was and it was easier to just give those duties over to his chief commander, Joab. Instead, he stayed back in the palace and relaxed4. This is brought out by the second little detail the writer adds (which he didn’t need to), that David was arising from bed at sunset, in the evening. While his men were out fighting in the heat of the battle, he’d been taking it easy and now that things were a little cooler he felt now would be a good time to go out and survey his vast domain. And, as the old saying goes, which my Grandmother said to my mother, and my mother says to me, and I pass on to you…
‘The Devil finds work for idle hands’
The 10/2 commandments
Think for a moment about the second half of the Ten Commandments. Which did David break in this sorry affair?
David’s affair with Bathsheba
You shall not covet
Broken - He certainly coveted his neighbour’s wife
You shall not commit adultery
Broken – Coveting most certainly lead to adultery
You shall not lie
Broken – David was living a lie. Even using deception and trying to trick Uriah into sleeping with his wife so that Uriah would think the child was his.
You shall not steal
Broken – He stole another man’s wife when he had all things already
You shall not murder
Broken – the incredible sorry result of a series of sins. He purposefully set a trap for Uriah so that he would be killed in battle.
After everything has been done and exposed, can you imagine David out on his balcony, looking over his kingdom, thinking ‘how did it ever come to this?’ How did I, the young shepherd boy with a heart for God, end up doing all of this?' But think on this - If David is capable of it, so are we. Don't overestimate your ability or underestimate the deceitfulness of sin. But again, also remember that it wasn’t lust or coveting that primarily caused this massive downfall. They are the result not the source. This is an example of the peril of unconscious decay… the slow circling of the ivy choking the plant. Guard your heart people!
What to do? Get healthy, eat your greens & partake in the three-fold lettuce salad.
So let’s go back to Hebrews are see what it says to do. You’ll see that it is a partial salad. It’s a good thing to eat your greens right? Here are three ‘let-uc-es’ to help keep you strong and running well.
1. Let us throw off everything that hinders (weights) and the sin that so easily entangles
2. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
3. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith
I have spoken about the first two ‘lettuces’ already so let’s focus on the third. It is the third that makes all the difference and makes the first two possible. Without the third it would just be ‘try harder’, ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘be better’, ‘run faster’. It is the third that moves the Christian race from the sphere of human effort, pitiful as it is, to find His strength.
Fix your eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. If you are a born again believer, Jesus began your faith and He will complete it. The wonderful thing as we come back to Him, and back to the cross in humility and dependence, is that we receive ‘life’. We fix our eyes on Him. I remember reading the life stories of some of the more modern day ‘heroes’ of the faith. Great men like D.L Moody, Charles Spurgeon, George Muller, John Bunyan etc. All of them inspire you. You finish the book and you think ‘right, I’m going to be a preacher like Surgeon, or I’m going to witness and save souls like Moody, or live by faith like Muller, or Pastor and persevere through difficulty like Bunyan.' They make you want to be a better Christian. And it is good to be inspired. But they can’t give you the life to be better… unless you look to Him who was the inward strength of all those men and women of faith throughout all the ages. Ray Stedman says others ‘can inspire us, but He empowers us’. Without the Lord I am but me and we need to remember that all of these great saints like Moody, Spurgeon, Muller, Bunyan etc did what they did because of the call and empowering on the Lord in their lives.
I could (possibly) motivate you through a stirring message to ‘do more’ and ‘be better’ but without getting you to go back to the Lord, who is our strength, I will accomplish nothing. You might feel inspired for a moment… and then lunch comes, and then normal life… and that’s about that. Message gone, beaten by a BLT sandwich. The job of any preacher will often involve getting you to look at yourself… but it can’t remain there for that is not where the answer lies. We may take inspiration from the lives of Moses or Abraham and learn from them, but the text never says ‘looking unto Moses the author and perfecter of your faith’… Or any man for that matter. But as we look unto Jesus and take our position as one who is in desperate need of Him once again, we can find real change. We find the weights and impediments and entangling sin loosen its grip and fall by the wayside.
Conclusion - back to Pilgrim's Progress
To conclude, let’s look again at how John Bunyan portrayed this in Pilgrims Progress5. Christian is seen first of all carrying a large burden on his back… a heavy weight. This is the burden of sin and guilt and it made the early part of his journey very difficult. But he came to a hill, a unique hill with a cross on it and something wonderful happened - the burden that had caused so much trouble fell from his back!
Bunyan writes: Now I saw in my dream that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on each side with a wall; the wall was called Salvation. Therefore, it was up this highway that Christian ran, but not without great difficulty because of the burden of the load on his back. He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.
To run well takes a continual coming back to the cross and to the Lord, for His life. It also takes an awareness, which the Lord can give, of the weights and entanglements that trip us up and make the race difficult. Guard your heart. Take note if apathy to the Lord, His word and His business starts to slowly grow in your life.
Do your best not to hold on to heavy burdens.
And no, I’m not talking about steroid abuse. As far as I know we were all clean as we lined up for the Bellevue Athletic club under 8 100m final. I certainly hope so anyway! ↩
Other names that didn’t quite make the final cut were ‘the choking’ and ‘the strangling’. They both sounded a bit too much like a horror movie for a Bible Study. So it’s ‘the entanglement’ And we'll also be looking at the need to lose some weight. ↩
Every half decent message needs a gardening section right? Actually it is amazing how many illustrations there are in nature that can speak to us of spritual matters. We just need eyes to see. ↩
J. Vernon McGee writes on why David stayed behind saying: ‘ I have only a suggestion to make. After David built his palace he found it very comfortable. It was quite different from the cave of Adullam where he had spent his youth. His palace was a place of luxury and comfort. Also David loved Mount Zion and wanted to stay around that place. Prosperity is one of the things that has trapped so many men and women. Our great comfort has become a curse in our nation.‘ ↩
I really love this particular version of Pilgrim's Progress (which the images are taken from) by C J Lovik. See here: https://www.amazon.com/Pilgrims-Progress-This-World-Which/dp/1433506998 ↩