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“Lay aside” My Sin?

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Recently, I’ve had a verse on my mind a lot.

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely (Hebrews 12:1)

There is a lot to say about this section of scripture, but what strikes me most about this verse lately is not so much the main analogy of running a race. It’s how the writer chooses to describe weights and sin and particularly what we do with them. He says, “let us lay aside.” I don’t know how you feel when you read this, but to me at first reading, it can sound demeaning, right? Of all the ways the writer could have described how we interact with sin, why “lay aside?” It sounds so small, so menial, so anticlimactic. “Just lay it aside.” Like putting your clothes in a drawer, set aside the sin and weights that encumber you. To many of us, probably most of us, sin is not something we just lay aside.

Most of us have that one sin or weight in particular that ensnares us over and over again, and we are engaged in a life or death struggle. We’re caught in the Romans 7 struggle minus the “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” part, and that sin, that abuse, that addiction is the largest thing in our view, blocking out practically everything else. Consider the struggle of reliving sexual abuse, the hopeless feeling of being addicted to sex and pornography, the seemingly irresistible pull of alcohol, the control of anger and bitterness. Do these sound like things we just set down, take off, lay aside? Is the author being ruthless, discompassionate, and dismissive? I think the question begs asking. How does something so overwhelmingly big become so menial, so dismissed and so insignificant? The answer to this question has two big implications for our struggles against sin.

Christ’s Overwhelming Greatness

First, the context of Hebrews 12:1 is illuminating to exactly what the author intends, and it is far from discompassionate:

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.

This cloud of witnesses is not the group of people in Hebrews 11 looking down upon us to whom we look for approval or applause. Rather, their lives bear witness to God’s faithfulness as we trust Him throughout life with patience and endurance, setting our hope fully on the inheritance still to come when Christ returns. In fact, there is one witness left out of Hebrews 11 who has the greatest testimony of all, and that is Jesus who is included now. First, let’s focus on what Jesus did: He “despised” this unimaginable shame of the cross, the very God of the universe spat upon, stripped, ruthlessly lashed, left limp and dying on a cross, and scorned by everyone passing by. Even worse, Jesus felt contempt from the Father as, for the first and only time in all of the existence of time, the Father looks away from His Son in disgust, seeing the sin of all who would believe on Him as Christ Himself embodied it and took on Himself wrath for it.

If you’re like me, “despise” carries the everyday meaning of hating intensely. That’s not necessarily wrong, but here it carries the nuance of looking down on and thinking little of. He looked down on shame as a lesser compared to Him, disrespectfully, even in a dismissive sense as if it wasn’t really worth His attention. To convince yourself, see how it’s used elsewhere in scripture (Rom 2:4; 1 Cor 11:22; 1 Tim 4:12,6:2; 2 Pet 2:10). This is why I do believe that the writer of Hebrews is probably intending his language in verse 1 to seemingly make light of our weights and sin nature. Christ basically made light of the shame of the cross, but how and why did He do that? How does the One who should be honored above all creation think little of such mockery and scorn? Please don’t take that question lightly or quickly. Think about who God actually is and what He deserves. Then think about how people treat Him here. Soak in the infinite separation between what He deserved and what He received instead. Think about your own situations of being misunderstood, mocked, lied against, shamed; and then how much greater Christ’s really was. How does He actually think little of it all?

Luckily, scripture does not leave us blind here, since we are among many other, deeper things to imitate Christ. We are to think light of shame as well; yet for us to breathe is to be infected with the fear of man. He did it for the joy set before Him — He did it by faith in grace to come, in the promises of God. Christ knew the Father would raise Him up and glorify Him above all creation as He deserves, but He also knew it was the Father’s will for this road to pass through the ugliest scene in human history, the worst suffering possible: the disgusted turning away of the Father’s eyes from His beloved Son. Jesus’ trust in the Father led Him to dismiss the weight of shame coming against Him, and He is now seated at the Father’s right hand. Christ’s gaze upon the Father and trust in Him completely eclipsed the shame.

Clearly, this shame is not small or something to be dismissed. Clearly, the author is not being dismissive of Christ’s agony on the cross. What he is doing is trumpeting the glory of God all the more, saying that whatever Christ’s suffering entailed, the joy set before Him was so much greater so as to render the suffering menial, disrespected, and dismissed. Yes, His shame and pain were unimaginable, and I actually mean that here as we honestly cannot begin to grasp the weight of what He bore. But this only serves to magnify the greatness of what was set before Him, a view of which cured the shame and rendered it insignificant by comparison. What was set before Christ was the Father with Whom He has eternally co-existed, and the Father rendered Christ’s suffering puny.

We, likewise, have lesser yet still extremely significant sufferings, sins, and weights bearing down on us. I don’t think the author has any intention of pretending otherwise or he wouldn’t have brought up Christ’s shame. Yet, we, looking to Christ, imitate Christ in His dismissal and His means of dismissal. As the Father promised to raise Christ from the grave and set Him on high above all creation, Christ has promised to raise us and make us co-heirs with Him, forever in the presence of the most beautiful, satisfying Person who ever lived. Christ trusts in the Father, and we likewise trust Christ as we look to Him, believing His promises and receiving eternal life. It is displaying (by preaching the gospel) and gazing upon (by meditating, obeying, believing, and trusting) Christ and His promises — the joy set before us — that does this supernatural act of rendering our admittedly great sufferings and sins insignificant by comparison. Paul says in Romans 8:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Scripture often commands us to lay aside and put off sin with similar type of language as we see in Hebrews 12:1. This is the key that unlocks that door. This is how Christ did it and how He enables us to do it as well as the Holy Spirit whom He sent reveals God’s nature and promises to us and gives us the faith to trust Him. This notion is definitely similar to the very helpful sermon of Thomas Chalmers called the “Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Just as it is only the surpassing greatness of God that renders otherwise significant sin and wight insignificant, it is only the surpassing greatness of a new affection for God that powerfully expels other affections for creation and ultimately ourselves.

God’s living water out-identifies the names we take on because of sexual abuse. His sure hope overcomes the hopelessness of addiction. He out-allures sex and pornography. He overpowers the tug of alcohol. He disarms anger as we see Christ absorbing the guilt of many on the cross. Only in His gospel, the highlight of His glory, do our weights and sins shrink from our eyes. Only then do we stop living as moons revolving around a sad, dark planet and become solar systems revolving around a brilliant galactic center.

The Main Point Of It All

Let’s not forget that this passage is a racing metaphor, and we’re doing something as we race: looking to Jesus. Christ is not merely our example by any means; but if you’re running, the thing you’re looking at the entire time you run must be the thing you’re running toward, or should I say, the One you’re running toward. I believe there are two things to glean from this treatment of sin and weight in Hebrews 12. First, as mentioned before, is that it becomes insignificant only in light of an overwhelmingly greater and more satisfying God, and the pinnacle of this satisfaction is yet to come. Second, the insignificance of sin and weights bearing down on us has a further implication: sin has almost nothing to do with this race.

What I mean by that is that the whole point of this race is to make it to Jesus and enjoy Him forever in future glory to come. Consideration of sin is a very distant second, and it only exist in so much as it hinders us from looking to Jesus and running with endurance. The race set before us is one of faith (trust in God, namely His nature and promises), and sin is not the main player here. I believe the primary goal of speaking about sin and encumbrances this way is ultimately pastoral: to urge us to get our eyes off of sin and onto the One who cures it: Jesus Christ. As we embark on this race with endurance, we cannot constantly cast our eyes on the junk in our backpacks or we’re going to be pathetic runners. Runners keep their eyes forward, not up, down, left, right, or backwards.

As we fight sin, we must always keep in mind the goal of fighting sin: to see and savor Christ all the more by forsaking that which is replacing Him in our lives. Suppose that we succeeded in fully and finally putting down sin. What then? If all you’ve thought of is “personal holiness,” this day might come as a shock. There’s nothing else to wage battle against, so have you kept in mind the point of the battle in the first place? This day will come. It will be when Christ returns and all evil desire is fully and finally put down, freeing our hearts to never again suffer temptation to disbelieve or disobey. On that day, we will forever fulfill our purpose of being created: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We cannot lose sight of this because we are to be doing that now as we fight sin. Not only that, but glorifying and enjoying God is precisely how we fight sin and put it down as well. The end is the means, and it is ultimately a Person: the triune God Himself.

I’d like to leave with this plea. If we’re breathing, then sin and suffering are big, difficult, and overwhelming for us. Jesus made light of incredible shame as He considered the joy set before Him that the Father promised. Let’s look to the gospel of who God is, what He’s done, and what He will do, and let’s watch sin and suffering shrink in light of His greatness. Let’s press on in the race the way Jesus did and by Jesus’ constant enabling grace, always looking to the joy set before us: God Himself. May sin truly be secondary for us, may we lay it aside for the sake of what is primary. May the sins taking up our eyesight which we fear and respect shrink dramatically and become disrespected. And may Christ fill our vision and demand our respect as we run full to the end.

Posted by Matt Norman with

Lifting Our Eyes and Hearts to Jesus

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A Daunting Endeavor

When we were drawing this thing up on paper, while it was still a nebulous blob of awkward shot-in-the-dark brain storming, there was one vision, one story that stuck. The biggest question before us was (and is): What are we actually doing here? What do we really expect to accomplish? Thinking about the nature of “change,” we cannot achieve it, we cannot cause it. With effort, we can move from one trap to another if the desire so drives, but to move from creation to Creator and genuinely love Him — that is no human accomplishment. As Paul puts it, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

What can we expect to accomplish? At face value, the answer can only be: nothing. No mere conversation, no exhortation, no intention can convince a man or woman of sin, cause the heart to hate it because of its offense to God, turn toward God in trust, and obey Him joyfully. Observing as a mere human, there are efforts, but they are silly compared to the goal we hope to achieve. We could turn our hopes to the hearts and intentions of redemption group members, turn the responsibility on them and say, “it will only happen if you want it to hard enough.” But at this point, we’re really grasping, and this is bordering on passive aggression to be honest. I don’t say all this as if we really put our hopes there but to highlight just how ludicrous this all really is without a God who intervenes in our hearts, interjects His gospel, imposes on our desires, and reforms our wills.

Gracious God, Grumbling People

Enter a truly peculiar Old Testament story that reverberates throughout God’s story through the New Testament and to us today. To set the scene, God made one-sided unconditional promises to Abraham that He would make a nation from him and bless the entire Earth through his descendants (particularly through Christ). God also foretold Abraham that his descendants would be held captive for 400 years but that He would rescue them powerfully and they would leave with great possessions. Throughout God’s process of doing this through the well-known plagues and Moses’ staff, Israel disbelieves, distrusts, complains, and accuses God. God does rescue them, they do leave with great possessions, but they soon accuse Him of ill intent as Pharoah’s army presses on them one last time, saying to God, “Did you bring us out to kill us all in a mass grave?”

God does rescue them, makes lavish promises, reminds them who He is and what He’s done. They soon, however, grumble about bitter water. He graciously provides sweet water. They grumble then about lack of food, claiming it was better for them in Egypt and that God had done evil to them. God graciously provides manna. Then, they grumble and accuse God as they’re lacking water, distrusting God’s provision again. He graciously provides, makes lavish promises. They disobey His command to join Him and become His people, a nation of priests, and a prized possession because they still refuse to trust Him. They make a golden calf and ascribe their past rescue and future hope to it at the exact same time that God is detailing to Moses how He plans to still dwell with His people and begins pointing to Christ in the strongest way yet as He describes the Holy making unclean things clean. They grumble and accuse about how boring manna is, and He gives them meat. They still grumble and accuse.

I feel the tug to apologize for the lengthiness of “setting the scene,” but as Ecclesiastes carries on seemingly indefinitely for a good purpose, it is important to see God’s nature pitted against that of Israel’s. It shows the one-sidedness of His intervening and imposing love, the lavishness and undeservedness of His provision to us. Yes, I said “us.” We are Israel. We are the grumblers, each of us. We are the accusers. We suffer, and we also sin — we sin, and we also suffer. God has a mind to cure both with compassion and power.

A Peculiar Cure

God decides, as hard discipline to His people, having abounded in steadfast love, to send on them “fiery serpents” to bite them with poison. Many of them died as a result of this. Get the picture here. Suddenly, one day, snakes are everywhere, in the tents, in the water supply, in the food. They are biting everyone, killing many. This is a scene of panic, fear, bewilderment, hopelessness, and above all: desperation. I make no claims that this is, in its entirety, intended to be an allegory of the Christian’s life, but we would not err to consider these snakes as an image of the tangible, desperate destruction sin causes in our lives.

This might sound like a mass murder scene here, but remember that this is discipline. God has a promise to keep, and His name is at stake in the Israelites making it to the promised land and eventually giving birth to Christ Himself. He will not let His people utterly die. He will not let His promises fail, not even one of them. God’s remedy for this situation, though, is truly odd. He tells Moses to have a serpent crafted from bronze and raised up so that all of the people can see it. Then God tells Moses that anyone who looks upon this serpent will be healed from the bites of the serpents, from the wounds, from the poison. All in all, this can seem like quite the strange episode until we see how Christ used this story millennia later.

To the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, who clearly wasn’t understanding what Jesus was telling him, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus was probably referring to His crucifixion here but surely He was referring also to Himself being lifted up by the preaching of the gospel. It’s as we believe on Him in the gospel that we are healed. But what about the second part of what He said? It is a direct parallel to what God said to Moses in the wilderness in the book of Numbers: “And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” On one hand, a serpent is lifted up, and whoever looks on it lives. On the other hand, Christ is lifted up, and whoever believes on Him lives forever. Christ is the better staff, believing on Him is the better seeing, and eternal life is the better life. We see this link repeated in John 6, 8, and 12.

Lifting, Gazing, and Living

A. W. Tozer explains: “Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” As a southern culture, most of us know of the better staff (Christ Himself), but we don’t know much of the better “looking.” This tends not to make its way much into our teaching, our minds, our hearts, or our daily endeavors. Christ is clear that the better looking is in essence believing, and yet we find further vividness in the rest of the Word of believers “gazing on” and “beholding” God. To put bones and flesh to this blob of “beholding,” consider the Psalms. Consider in particular ones like Psalm 42. God, I’m desperately thirsty for you in a place that’s utterly empty by comparison! I long for you amidst a people who mock you! I pour out my heart before you, longing to lead a wild party of praise to You! The psalmist also speaks to himself. My soul, why so depressed? Hope in God! Remember Him!

Sometimes dripping slowly, sometimes raging like a flood, the Psalms pour over a Person. They revolve around Him, they get angry at Him, they delight in Him, they recall His deeds, they tell of Him. This is “gazing.” It is a personal, relational, active, engaging orbit around God and in His presence, taking place in the thoughts, the emotions, the desires, and the actions. Christ put it as “believing;” and we know from the Word He embodies that it is so much more than cognitive processing and agreement.

Gazing involves the lifting up of Christ in the gospel. This doesn’t just mean that He was lifted up (crucified) once, but we actively lift Him up today as Moses lifted up the only hope for Israel in the wilderness at the brink of sure death. If believing in Christ is this engaged, relational orbit around God in His presence, then lifting Him up is the inciting and stirring of this believing by recalling Him as the Psalmist did, ultimately by looking to the good news of the cross. God is lavish in helping us with this, as we see Him reminding His people of His nature, benevolence, faithfulness, deeds, power, and promises. We have help practicing this as we see this lifting up practiced so diversely in the gospels, the Psalmists, and the Apostles. One cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Another cries, “You keep my tears in your bottle. You intimately care for every detail of my life.” Yet another declares, “God gave you Christ when you were at your worst. How much more will He give you all things!”

And what is the end result of this lifting and gazing, this belief that is so much more than mental assent? It is “eternal life,” which if you’re anything like me doesn’t yet mean very much. But we aren’t left alone on this to figure it out. Christ later prays publicly in the same gospel, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” While “know” can mean a number of things depending on context, Jesus’ context is about salvation, and it is highly personal in this prayer. This “knowing” is essentially the result of Romans 8:29 where God “foreknew” us, and the context of this is unity with Christ, adoption, forgiveness, a promised inheritance with Him forever. As Matthew Henry says about this “knowing,”

God’s foreknowledge of the saints is the same with that everlasting love wherewith he is said to have loved them. God’s knowing his people is the same with his owning them. Words of knowledge often in scripture denote affection.

Eternal life is first being known by and therefore knowing God, personally, intimately, in a familiar sense. This knowing is as a son calling his Dad, “Papa.” This knowing is as a bride dancing with her Bridegroom. The better life, eternal life, is receiving the very object of our gazing and believing, the center of our orbit: God Himself.

No Ordinary Conversations

No conversation, no exhortation, no intention can change a person’s desires. Unless the son of man be lifted up, that is. These are no ordinary conversations we have in redemption groups, no ordinary words, no ordinary thoughts, feelings, desires, actions. Once for all time, Christ being lifted up purchased for all His people, all who would gaze on Him and believe Him, a secure promise of change and a sure inheritance where all evil desire is put down forever, never again even influencing our hearts. In this context, as we lift Him up before each others’ eyes, we begin to see this identity purchased for us, its intimate promises, its applicable reach, its power.

In redemption groups at Legacy Church in Knoxville, we spend our efforts in trust that God is giving the growth by lifting up His son for us to believe on and be healed. Many will come in desperate need of healing from suffering inflicted on them and from sins they inflict toward God. This gospel is the “power of God toward salvation for all who believe,” and this faith is His gift to us, undeserved, purchased for us by Christ along with all His gifts. Not only will brothers and sisters come, gaze on the gospel, and find healing in Christ. They will also lift it up to others themselves. The heart of redemption groups is a skillful and applicable display of Christ and an arm-in-arm gaze on Him. Infatuated with Him, we fully expect this display to spread from participants to their spheres of life, lifting the heads of the shamed, confounding the proud, encouraging the downcast, and liberating captives.

In short, we are, together, lifting our eyes and our hearts to Jesus.

For more information on this scene from Numbers 21 and its connections to Christ, John Calvin’s commentary is very helpful.

Posted by Matt Norman with