The Bible is hard to understand in places. It’s also a thick book – who can remember it all? Therefore, many of us have ultra-simplified our theology, condensing it down to, “When I die, I go to heaven.” That’s simple and easy to remember. But its very simplicity is deceptive.
Consider Hebrews 12:2, for example: “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Here, Jesus was not cowering under the shame of being on the cross, nor was He screaming for the pain and agony to end. Jesus on the cross is our example of how to accept the will of God and endure pain for Him (1 Peter 2:21). As a reward for His faithfulness to death, God set Him up on a throne to rule in the kingdom (Philippians 2:5-11).
If we simply believe “When I die, I go to heaven,” then why bother to endure suffering the way Jesus did? Why stand against sin and the impulses of the flesh? Why endure our sufferings with a hope of everlasting joy when we can just be mean and spiteful? Why not run away from anything that threatens our comfort? Why not rail against all personal injustice and indignity that is heaped upon us? Why not fight back at the people who cause us pain?
Because God wants us to die in honor and receive the greatest rewards.
We are all going to die, but we will not all die with honor before God. God is looking for people to reign with His Son. “When I die” – but how will you die, in faithfulness or unfaithfulness? “… I will go to heaven” – but once there, will you reign with Him or be rejected for a reward?
I’m aware that there are wasting diseases in the elderly that take away our ability to reason or think or control ourselves. God is aware too. He understands these things. Still, it doesn’t take away our responsibility to live for Jesus and endure well the suffering that comes with that life.
This verse has had a powerful effect on my life and the life of others. Let’s go into it with more detail.
“looking unto Jesus”
This passage is found in chapter 12 of Hebrews. As always, one should read the previous chapters to get the context. Chapter 11 is about the heroes of faith; specifically, those who endured to the end in faith, holding fast to God’s promises for them, though they suffered for it. Abraham did not look to his old body to get the child God promised Him. Noah, when he built the ark, did not consider the history of a world which had never before received rain. Moses did not consider the riches of Pharaoh as a reason not to lead the children of Israel to the Promised Land. Their secret of enduring to the end in faith was seeing a great God. Key verse for that chapter: “He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6b). They saw it worthwhile to seek Him, to look unto Him.
God would stay with them through thick and thin. He is faithful and will do all He promised for them. He has shown Himself true and powerful and willing to work with weak men to accomplish His purposes. They saw a big God and He was enough for them. Is our God dim? Have we made our will more important than His? We are promised that if we seek Him we will find Him, if we seek Him with all of our hearts. And what we find will change our lives forever.
“the author and finisher of our faith”
Jesus told a people who had followed him after He performed a miracle, “This is the word of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). This is still the work of God. It’s easy to believe in Him when times are rolling well. It’s in the hard times that our faith is tested and we see where we really stand. He wants to build up trust in Him. Unfortunately, the seed sown on the ground with only a little root is beaten by the heat of the sun and withers away. Will you be like Abraham, Noah, and Moses, who found something of their God that enabled them to keep on pushing through the heat? Do you practice believing the promises of God in the Word to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Christ?
“who for the joy that was set before Him”
Jesus felt the hardship of the cross. We are on a journey that involves hardships, but the journey has an end that will more than make up for the trials. Paul wrote to encourage us, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the tings which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Jesus had a joy ahead of Him that was clearly worth the suffering He went through. His suffering on the cross was intense, but short, compared to the everlasting splendor in view. The athlete in the Olympic race will give every ounce of strength and power for the brief time he is in the race, because the fame and honor of the gold medalist will be worth it all in the end. Paul saw the greatness of receiving a “well done, good and faithful servant” at the end of it all from Jesus, a crown and a throne, and everlasting glory – all reserved for the faithful Christian, not for all Christians.
“endured the cross”
My prison pen pals seem to fall into two categories: One group says, “I don’t like it here! This is more suffering than I can stand. I don’t know why God is doing this to me.”
The other group says (this is from an actual letter), “By the grace of God, today I am very mindful of the blessings that follow each trial, for right behind it is a lesson that will help us in the near future.”
One group complains; the other waits for God. One group sees confusion; the other has understanding. The difference is accepting God’s truth in the word of God, or not. The Israelites coming out of Egypt to the Promised Land were in two groups, those who had faith and those who did not; those who entered the Land, and those who died in the desert, never to see it. These two groups are here in the church. When we go through a trial, everyone finds out who we really are. We can keep our acts together in the best of times, but when the situation turns against us, the ugly comes out. The temper, the cursing, doubting, depression, and generally being a bother to others around you. Or you demonstrate faith in God through a patient spirit.
Don’t waste your sorrows. They are a window into your spiritual life. Let them point you to a productive prayer time with God, and a renewed search in the Scriptures for the way to trusting Him more the next time. Does the hard time reveal a bad temper? Deal with the need for self-control. Does it expose anxiety? Deal with your trust issues with God. Does it expose impulsiveness? Learn the steps to patience. Indeed, as the pen pal wrote, our trials give us lessons with important truths to learn — about the weaknesses of our character and the ability of Jesus to redeem it through hardships.
“despising the shame”
To believe God is to go a different path than we now take. It involves going against the sinful flow at home, work, or school. Jesus the Righteous and Sinless One temporarily took on the embarrassing public designation of a criminal when He was crucified. He despised the shame in the sense that the indignity was worth ignoring in order to do the will of God.
Too many of us pay close attention to our egos and our place among others. It’s normal to want to be accepted and respected. But those things must be pushed aside when God has a plan that needs to move along, and we may need to do things contrary to the image we’ve built up for ourselves. That level of obedience will come only with a deeper trust in God and the power of the Holy Spirit upon a person. Start working on these now. Find and believe promises that will sustain you.
“and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus’ path is ours. If we remain faithful to the end, a throne awaits. If we don’t, then it is forfeited. Our salvation is assured; we will never lose our status of being children of God. But as the shopkeeper sees his two sons grow up, and will choose the more noble and dependable one to mind the store and not the other, even so God is evaluating our lives now to decide His choices for special honors in the kingdom. The shopkeeper won’t love the other son less, and neither will God love the unfaithful child less. But the unfaithful will not obtain the better deal.
God has given us the truth regarding our trials: they are the very tools He uses to shape our character and prepare us for a place in His coming kingdom. If we wish, we may turn away from these truths and say, “I just don’t understand. I don’t like it.” But that puts us on a dangerous path, one that ends at the feet of the very Crucified One whom we are rejecting.
We look at our sufferings and say, “It’s not fair.” Yet was Jesus’ crucifixion fair? He died for sins He did not commit. With His death, He shows us how to suffer: with dignity, surrendered to God’s will as though He were using this trial for our good. As a parent, it’s my role to show my family and kids how to suffer according to the will of God. If you won’t suffer for yourself at this time, suffer to teach others how to endure.
Make a list of problems you have when you suffer. Do you complain more than usual? Are you difficult to deal with (can you see yourself from other’s point of view)? Do you lose faith quickly? Do you quickly assume the worst and become paralyzed? God is more than enough for all these problems. Read up on the promises and learn to hold fast to them in difficult situations. Read literature on the power of the Holy Spirit, for we were not meant to go through life in our own strength.
“But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).