This talk was given at Reformation Fellowship on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014.
We celebrate Easter today because of its wonderful, personal relevance. Because of Easter, I know that my existence will not end in the total obliteration of my being. Death is not my end. I will not remain in the grave. Because Jesus was raised up out of his grave, I too will be raised up out of mine.
But Easter does not have this significance for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection does not spell good news for all. Death and total destruction is the ultimate outcome for most human beings. Only some, like Jesus, will be raised from death to Life. Who are these few? Who are the ones who will accompany Jesus into eternal Life? It is those who finish the quest that God has given them, those who stay the course and do not give up, those who run their race to the end.
The first two verses of Hebrews 12 read something like this:
Therefore, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, removing every encumbrance—even the sin that so readily trips us up—let us run with endurance the contest that lies before us, fixing our eyes on our leader and the finisher of his belief, Jesus. He, for the sake of the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has been seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
After devoting several paragraphs to describing all the men and women of old who believed in the promises of God and who organized their lives around their anticipation of those promises being realized, Paul exhorts his readers to follow their example. They must take courage from the belief of these remarkable men and women and continue to “run the race” that lies before them.
In this exhortation, Paul likens human existence to a contest in which we are engaged. As a human being, I am confronted with a race that I must run. Will I endure? Will I run the race to the end? Will I keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how arduous, how grievous, how tedious, or how bitter the task becomes? I must do so, Paul warns, for only those who finish the race receive the prize. It is not those who begin the race who get the reward; it is not those who are enthusiastic and excited about the race. The reward goes to those who finish it, to those who run it to the end.
What exactly does Paul mean with this metaphor? Picturing our lives as a race or journey is commonplace—the stock-in-trade of every motivational speaker. They use it to tell us to buck up and keep going, to persevere in our striving toward our goal, to overcome any and all obstacles until we finally achieve success. We must not give up, they insist. We can only achieve worldly success if we but try and try again. But this is the trite cheerleading of godless, worldly counselors. This is not how Paul is using this metaphor.
Paul has in mind a very specific picture of the journey we are on. He sees our quest this way: our challenge is to persist in wanting what we should ultimately want and in believing what we should ultimately believe. For Paul, to run the race to the end is to make it to the end of our earthly existence and to still be wanting the Life beyond the grave that God has promised us, to still be believing that God has actually promised it, to still be believing that God will keep that promise, to still be ordering my whole existence around the hope of that promise, and to still be seeking to know and love the one who promised it to me.
To finish this race is not easy. To persist in all that we must persist in is an ordeal. Life is a contest, a challenge, a battle. And it is fraught with danger. I will face many opportunities to give up the quest. I can be seduced into wanting something else—something inferior to what God has promised. I will be tempted to shift my hope and desire away from eternal Life, to want what I can get right now rather than wait patiently for what I can only get at the end. Time and again, out of sheer weariness, I will feel like flopping down by the side of the road and abandoning the race—preferring to succumb to a destiny of death than to do the hard work of battling on toward Life. Over and over, I will be tempted to hate God rather than love him; for I will always find it easier to misunderstand and misinterpret him than to know him and love him. I will find myself rebelling against him rather than submitting to him as my Master and honoring him as my Creator. Day after day, I will face new and different pitfalls, any one of which could cause me to fall to my eternal destruction.
To sum it up, then, who is the one who will be raised up from the dead? It is the one who reaches the end of his earthly existence still hoping in and longing for eternal Life, still believing that God will reward him with it, still bowing the knee to God, and still striving to live in obedience to his instructions. In other words, it is the one who has been victorious over the dangers and temptations of this existence. Life is a contest. It is those who finish the race who will be granted Life.
How do we know that such a reward awaits us? On the one hand, we know because God—who does not make false promises—has promised. But, on the other hand, we know because we have clear and unmistakable evidence. Jesus has gone on before us to just such a reward. That is what Paul meant when, in the verses I cited above, he labeled Jesus “the leader and finisher of his belief.”
Jesus was required to run exactly the same race that we are required to run—the journey of belief. Jesus, too, looked forward to a reward. Not only had God promised him Life beyond the grave, but he had also promised him a Kingship. Jesus could reign forever over the eternal Kingdom of God. But like us, his attaining that destiny was conditional. He must finish the race. He must reach the end of his earthly existence still wanting that destiny, still believing that his Father would grant it to him, still acknowledging the authority and glory of his Father, and still obeying his Father’s every command. And Jesus did just that. He obeyed his Father to his very bitter end. As Paul put it, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him,” he “endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” Jesus obediently allowed himself to be rejected by the Jews and tortured by the Romans in order that he might receive his reward and be exalted to a seat at “the right hand of the throne of God.” In other words, Jesus finished the ordeal that had been assigned to him. He completed the race that had been given him to run. He had carried the cross that had been given him to carry. That is what Paul means when he assigns him the rather odd description, the “finisher of his belief.” So Jesus’ assignment was just like ours: he would receive his reward if he finished his race.
But there is something strikingly unique about Jesus. Unlike the rest of humanity, Jesus has already received his reward. He is not lying in the grave waiting for God to keep his promise. He spent three days in the grave, and then God acted. He raised his “beloved Son” up and gave him the Life that had been promised to him—the very same Life that awaits every one of us who belong to God. Jesus entered into his ongoing, eternal existence that Easter morning nearly two thousand years ago. He “put on” his immortality. He will never be subject to death again. What’s more, he has become fully and completely qualified to reign as King over the eternal Kingdom of God. When God finally decides to usher in his Kingdom, Jesus is completely ready and qualified to reign. Every other child of God, from the beginning of time, lies lifeless in his grave. Every other child of God must wait to receive his reward. But not Jesus. He has gone on before us. He has completed his race and gone on to his final reward. That is why Paul describes him as our “leader.” He is our leader in the sense that he was the first to cross the finish line and to enter the uncharted territory of immortal existence.
So, how do we know that the reward of eternal Life awaits us? How do we know that we will not be abandoned in our grave but will be raised up to immortal existence? Not just because the God of truth has promised us, but because we have concrete, empirical evidence that one man has already received such Life. Jesus is not in his grave! He has been granted immortality. If God kept his promise to Jesus, then we can be all the more assured that he will keep his promise to us.
But, as I said earlier, not every human being can celebrate Easter. Easter does not promise eternal Life to every human being. It promises Life only to those who finish the race. For that reason, Easter presents us with a challenge. It reminds us that we must persist to the end, that we must never abandon our journey, that we must overcome all the dangers along the way, and that we must not give up or wander off the course. Paul puts it something like this in Hebrews 12:12-13:
Point your tired, drooping hands and your weak and wobbling knees straight toward the goal ahead. Set a straight course for your stumbling, staggering feet. Don’t let your weariness cause you to turn aside from the course you are on. Rather, refresh yourself for the journey! Replenish your energy!
The end is in sight. We know because Jesus has already reached it. And the reward is well worth it. Many before us have believed so. They staked their whole existence on attaining this reward. Therefore, we too must focus our whole existence on battling on to victory in the quest to persist in believing. Any other choice is folly. This is the challenge with which Easter presents us.
However, this challenge will have no effect unless we know, understand, and believe that Easter is a hard, objective fact of reality and not just an interesting story.
Allow me a little flight of fancy for a moment. Imagine a group of people who so liked J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that they regularly celebrated its story. Once a year, they dressed like hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, had a hobbit-like feast, sang hobbit-like songs, and rehearsed to one another the story of how Middle Earth was saved. You may think them a little odd. But this is not an entirely implausible scenario. The Lord of the Rings is a remarkable work of literature, an inspiring, hope-filled story of good triumphing over evil, of life surviving the threat of death, of well-being not being overcome by waste and destruction. You can understand a person wanting to remember and to celebrate such a hopeful story. So, once a year, this imaginary group of people makes this story the center of their day.
I fear that that is what Easter is to far too many Christians. We set aside one day a year to celebrate an intriguing story about a man who came back to life from the grave and did not succumb permanently and finally to death. We find this story hopeful, inspiring, and intriguing. Then, the next day, we return to life in this dreary world, trying to draw strength to go on from the story we remembered the day before.
But this is not belief. This is not what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The Jesus believer is not the one who is fascinated by the story of Jesus’ resurrection. He is the one who knows, understands, believes, and banks on Jesus’ resurrection to be a sober, hard, objective fact about the way reality actually is. One day, the people of God will rise from the dead, never to die again. That’s a fact. That’s the way it is. It’s not just a good story. It is a description of objective reality based on the empirical evidence of actual history. So, here and now, in this present age, I must live in the light of the established fact of Easter. I must live in such a way that I make sure my standing as a member of the people of God. I must run the race all the way to the end. I must complete the quest. I must overcome the dangers of human existence. I must keep the faith and not falter along the way.
I pray that we shall all succeed at doing just that.