Surrounded by witnesses

Hebrews 12:1-2 — Some thoughts and questions:

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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.”  [Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV]

I keep going back to these two verses, no matter what other scripture verses or books I’ve been trying to read the last couple of days. Here are some of my thoughts and questions:

  1. “We also.”  Who else is surrounded by those witnesses? I went back and read Chapters 11 and 10, but witnesses is not mentioned. I then reconsidered; perhaps it means that in addition to something else we are surrounded by, we are ALSO surrounded by witnesses. So, what else might WE be surrounded by? Hmmm. I kept reading.
  2. “Surrounded.”  They are all around us, not just in front or in back, or occasionally watching. We are, present tense, surrounded by people and/or angels and/or Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We don’t see them, but apparently they are there, nevertheless.
  3. “So great a cloud (i.e. large crowd.)”  Not just a dozen or so, how ever many it would take to surround a person. A great crowd, not a mediocre group, but lots, and lots.
  4. “Witnesses.”  These are people who actually saw something. They could legally testify to it in court, they didn’t just happen to see it in the corner of their eye in passing. They witnessed, observed, truly saw it. But saw what? A crowd has gathered to watch something take place. A football game or a Nascar race draws a crowd. Is this more than just watching and seeing? Witnessing indicates a more serious behavior than that. And why were they there? Were they invited? Or commanded to be there, like a jury or witnesses in a court case? (Further on we are told, it’s a race!) These witnesses are those described in the previous chapter, those who have already run their race and successfully completed it. They are the crowd who is cheering us on!
  5. “Let us lay aside every weight.”  Well, if we are in a race, we wear appropriate clothes. Wear no heavy jackets or coats, wear running shoes, not heavy boots (or sandals or flip-flops). Carry no briefcases or handbags, books to read or files to work on, no laptops, no cell phones, nothing that could distract or hinder movement.
  6. “Sin which so easily ensnares us.”  I looked up the word ensnares in the Greek. It refers to something “standing all around on every side,” something like tall weeds you could trip over, briars that could entangle in your clothes, even overgrown or weedy shrubs you might have to slog to get through. Easily! Oh, so so true. Opportunities are indeed standing all around us, on every side. We have to deal with it, lay it aside, get rid of it. We have to do this — not the next runner, or the coach, or one of the witnesses. We ourselves.
  7. “Let us run.”  Let us — us plural, not just one person, but all of us, the believers, the body of Christ. We are in this race together! It’s not just for one individual, no matter how many times you feel like you’re alone or deserted. And, run, not walk or saunter, not skip or meander. Run. Take no detours, no pausing to look at someone else, or at the sky, grass, trees, or animals. No turning the head to see what’s going on in the crowd up in the stands, not glancing backward or up ahead. Don’t take a break for a nap or a meal. Don’t mark your place, leave the track and come back later to take up where you left off. Running takes focus. It also takes training and practice.
  8. “With endurance.”  If you don’t have practice and/or training, you won’t develop endurance. Endurance indicates this isn’t a sprint. It’s not just a fast, short dash to the finish line. Not just circling around, and around, and around on a track, either. This is like a cross country event, where you might encounter weeds, briars and shrubs. Long distance.
  9. “The race that is set before us.”  A race. A race set before us. Set. Planned and conducted at a specific place and time. Set races have rules and officials. This one is set before us, not some other person or group.
  10. “Looking unto Jesus.”  Observing, focusing on him, not on someone else, while running. Ignoring the distractions, deliberately looking at Jesus. To do this, we must be close to him. Nothing and nobody can be in the way, between us and him. He has run this race before, he is doing it now with us. Beside us, ahead of us, behind us, and inside of us.
  11. “The author and finisher of our faith.”  Jesus authored faith and gave it to us in the first place, making his faith also our faith, complete, mature and perfect from inside us. The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the son of God. It’s not a natural, human belief that may come with education and experience, it is completely supernatural and comes to us from the one who created the universe. Receiving it is voluntary on our part. (Gal. 2:20)
  12. “Who for the joy that was set before Him.”  It wasn’t some gigantic pile of riches or power like superman, although Jesus had access to any and every thing that ever existed. He created it all in the first place. No, it was joy, fullness of joy in pleasing the Father, having successfully finished this assignment regardless of all the many obstacles along the way.
  13. “Endured the cross.”  His greatest obstacle was knowing that he could have avoided the cross, it was his own choice. Temptation to avoid the pain and the agonizing separation from the Father, facing and overcoming that temptation took an endurance we will never face!
  14. “Despising the shame.”  It wasn’t just the pain and the separation from the Father, it was so horribly shameful to be put to death as a criminal, by the very people he had come to rescue. The Jews and the Gentiles conspired to kill him — and he had to actually help them accomplish it. If it had only been the Jews, the Gentiles would not have been included in that spiritual rescue from the power of the enemy and sin. But although he hated the crushing disappointment and shame it caused in those closest to him, his family, the apostles and other disciples, he did it. He finished it. He knew that cross wasn’t the end.
  15. “And has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  That race had a glorious ending, a victor’s ending! A seat on the throne with Father God. So will ours.

By the way, notice something missing in that passage? There is no mention of the resurrection. I am curious about that omission here, but other scripture passages certainly cover it.

These have been fascinating verses, read and meditated on with the author’s own comments, the voice of the Holy Spirit in my spirit. I will read them again and again, I expect.

What was in the wilderness?

Matthew 4 and Luke 4 describe the temptation of Jesus in the Judean desert. Most of my life I had a mental image of that desert as being mostly sand dunes, rocks and lizards. One day, out of curiosity I decided to check out that wilderness, where it was, what was in it, what it was like at that time.

I wondered, what was there out there that could tempt Jesus? During the 40 days before Satan showed up, that is. Here’s some of what I learned:

East and south of Jerusalem, it’s one of the smallest deserts in the world, much of it lying adjacent and west of the Dead Sea. Craggy and rough, it’s hilly and mountainous with steep cliffs and deep ravines. It was difficult but not impossible to traverse on the well-used paths and trails that criss-crossed the area.

There are streams and many wadis, some containing pools of water in shaded areas; and also beautiful oases. The most famous oasis in the Judean Desert is in Ein Gedi near the northern part of the Dead Sea, called David’s Waterfall.

There are also many fruit trees and other vegetation (see the section on trees below).

Sparsely inhabited but not empty, the desert contained several small villages on its edges. Bethlehem was one, a place where many of Jesus’ relatives lived.

Bedouin encampments the size of small towns (the Bedouin were and still are very hospitable people to visitors) plus camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys.

Leopards and other wild animals also inhabited the area, although leopards are scarce today.

Herodium today seen from the side.

The spectacular Herod’s Palace (Herodium) south of Jerusalem may contain his burial site (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodium and http://allaboutjerusalem.com/attraction/herodion-national-park).

This palace complex was atop an artificial hill built by Herod the Great, the site of several archeological digs through recent years. After his death this opulent summer “resort” was used by many Roman officials.

Also in the desert is the fortress of Masada which overlooks the Dead Sea, captured and built up by Herod the Great as a military base. Both Herodium and Masada were occupied by Roman officials and solders who regularly traveled to and from those sites. Both are Israeli National Parks and popular tourist attractions today.

Many fruit or nut trees occupy wadis and oases, including date palms, pistachios, wild figs, carob and acacia:

Carob / Locust trees bear fruit that is edible green or dried; the dried fruit is used in candy and other foods as a substitute for chocolate. The sweet, soft flesh of the green fruit is called “honey.”

Carob and acacia (below) are legumes, members of the pea and bean family.

Acacia is a “rain tree,” so-called because its leaves fold together in rain or high humidity. Edible and primarily used as animal fodder, it provides helpful gum and has many medical applications also. The Tabernacle and Ark were made of acacia wood.

Considering everything there was for him to see and do in that wilderness, what was Jesus tempted with?

Food, people, animals, a magnificent natural environment and impressive man-made structures — a better question might be, what wasn’t Jesus tempted with?

Anything and everything that human beings today are tempted with, including distractions, tempted Jesus in that desert. Think he doesn’t understand your situation? He does.

I Cor. 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (NIV)

And Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.”