Have you ever seen a flawless model on a magazine cover or television commercial that made you self-conscious about your own looks or abilities because the chasm between the two of you felt impossibly huge? Models are everywhere, featured in more than magazines and advertisements. They are given to us to inspire consumption of magazines or products, but also to make us want to pattern ourselves after them or attain a certain level of achievement or status.
But instead of always doing what they are designed to do, sometimes if too-perfect, models can discourage us from even trying to be like them because they represent an unattainable ideal.*
The Model of Faith: Jesus
In Hebrews 12, we are given a model for our Christian faith. And yet, this model, although perfect, is different than other models you can recall that did more to discourage than inspire you. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first, let’s remind ourselves of verses 1,2 which I have been focusing on throughout this series:
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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
First, before the author ever discusses the perfect example of Jesus, he mentions a “great cloud of witnesses” (v. 1), referring back to the heroes of the faith mentioned in chapter 11. We should know that the author is systematically making an argument throughout Hebrews that Christianity is superior to Judaism. Speaking to Jewish Christians that were being persecuted and were tempted to return back to their Jewish faith, the writer continues this argument, bringing it towards a culmination in chapter 12.
Therefore, if we view this passage through that lens, we can conclude that although the many witnesses are given to encourage us to follow in their footsteps, we should note that they are more than just the usual I-am-perfect-so-be-like-me examples. First of all, they weren’t perfect! They screwed up in multiple ways just like you and me, but they shared one thing in common: their willingness to step out in faith and do what God said.
While we might envision spectators watching us in our walks of faith when we read the phrase “cloud of witnesses,” as the NIV Application Commentary points out, this image is meant to do more than tell us we have spectators in our journey. Rather, these witnesses “bear witness to the Christian community of God’s faithfulness and of the effectiveness of faith.”
Then, after mentioning the “great cloud of witnesses” to convince us that walking in faith is worth it, the author gives us Jesus as the one perfect example of the faith that eclipses the rest of the pack. However, again, as I mentioned above with the “cloud of witnesses,” the author’s use of Jesus as the ultimate example of faith is more than just a model for us to follow.
Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2). As I explained in Part 2 of this series, certainly this can mean what is sounds like — that our faith begins with Him and He works in us. That in and of itself is exciting, but that’s not all. There’s more. If we examine the words “pioneer” and “perfecter” in the Greek, we see that the meaning is not just of One who begins and ends our faith — but One who is the leader or pioneer of faith, as in the faith. The word “our” was added later before the word “faith.”
If we read it this way, we understand that Jesus is more than a model for us to emulate. He is the champion and forerunner of the faith. He is the only One who was able to run the race perfectly. And that changes everything. How? Let me explain:
How Jesus Perfects the Faith
If we skip down to verses 18-24 of chapter 12 of Hebrews, the writer says this:
For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm … . But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.
While the author started off Hebrews 12 by mentioning the “cloud of witnesses” and our one perfect example in Jesus, he goes deeper into this argument by asserting the better that the new covenant brings because of the race of faith Jesus perfectly completed. The verse states that the old covenant “can be touched” (v. 18). The Israelites were not allowed to touch Mt. Sinai, but the law was received in a physical location and was palpable. And this law was delivered to them in an awe-inspiring way, but in their weak humanity, they couldn’t even look at the face of Moses when he returned from the mountain with the law because his face glowed from being in the presence of God. Though the law was necessary, it was hard to abide by it.
However, the law was only temporary and Jesus brought with His death the new covenant — or new and better arrangement between God and believers. As believers, we are no longer under the old covenant. We no longer have to tremble at the words of God because we have come to “Mt. Zion” and have in Jesus a “mediator of the new covenant” (v. 24). While we can also point to Mt. Zion as a place, we don’t have to go to a physical locale any longer to receive Jesus into our lives. The new covenant is no longer external like the old covenant, but rather, internal.
Mt. Zion is representative of the spiritual nature of the new covenant and the union we have with God when we ask Jesus into our lives to be our Savior. While we have commands to follow given to us in Scripture, we have the Spirit of God living in us that helps us and transforms us to be more like Jesus as we walk with Him (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5).
The Freedom We Have In the New Covenant
Another place we see this same idea of the internal nature of the new covenant and the freedom we have in the new covenant is 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 where Paul says:
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of the new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Here, Paul states that his ability and competency comes from God. He can’t boast of anything in and of himself to do the work of God. This is important to note because we get the idea that weakness on our part isn’t anything to hide or try to cover up. God knows we’re weak and He works in our weakness! When we come to places in our spiritual walk that are too hard or look impossible to us, we may think that we have to overcome those places on our own. We get down on ourselves because we’re weak.
Maybe we’ve tried before in the area and failed, or maybe we have been running from God because we don’t think we can do what He is asking us to do. But here, it tells us that rather than be discouraged by our weakness or disqualify ourselves based on our weakness, our weakness is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that our strength is not in ourselves and turn to the Source of our power.
Paul also compares the old and new covenants here, as we see in chapter 12 of Hebrews, saying that the old covenant, or letter of the law, kills. Why does it bring death? Because those who couldn’t keep the law in the Old Testament were given judgment and even death.
Similarly, those who are saved now but attempt to live up to the law without the help of God’s Spirit will only experience shame and guilt and frustration. As the IVP New Testament Commentary says: “A covenant that is letter in nature kills because it makes external demands without giving the inward power for obedience, while a covenant that is Spirit in character gives life because it works internally to produce a change of nature.” To put it simply, the Gospel provides the way by which we can live as we should. On the other hand, the law simply makes us feel guilty and condemned because we are continually reminded of a standard we can’t live up to without the power to live it out.
Those who accept Jesus’ work on the cross by becoming believers and living by His Spirit live in freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). As the IVP illuminates: “Because of Christ, the Spirit, rather than sin, becomes the controlling principle in the life of the believer. The power that was lacking under the old covenant is now there for us to be the kind of moral people God intended.”
Friends, why is this such incredibly good news? The jaw-dropping conclusion and the twist I have been alluding to when we examine both Hebrews 12 and 2 Corinthians is that Jesus is more than a model — He also empowers us to become what He designed us to be. We don’t have to be perfect or despair when the gulf is wide between us and Jesus. He helps us do what we can’t on our own — and we have freedom to breathe in the new covenant because we have the help within us to live the life we were called to live as believers.
As Paul emphasizes, our weakness is an opportunity for the Spirit of God to do in us what we simply can’t do for ourselves. I love what Alexander McLaren observes in his commentary of Hebrews:
He [Jesus] is more than example. He gives us power to copy His fair pattern. The influence of heroic saintly lives may be depressing as well as encouraging. Despondency often creeps over us when we thinking of them. It is not models that we want, for we all know what we ought to be, and an example of supreme excellence in morals or religions may be as hurtful as the unapproachable superiority of Shake-spears or Raphael may be to a young aspirant. Perfect patterns do not save the world. They do not get themselves copied. What we want is not the knowledge of what we ought to be, but the will and power to be it. And that we get from Christ and Him alone.
It’s not that living in the Spirit of God erases the hard things that we have to do in our walks with God. There will still be hard things, but what freedom when we realize that we aren’t left alone to do what we can’t on our own. We aren’t given an impossible example — but rather, an example and the power to do what He asks.
Walking With Jesus Eases Our Guilt and Condemnation
I had a conversation with a Catholic gentleman the other day. He told me that he hadn’t been to mass lately because he got sick every time he went to church. Confused by his words, I asked for more details. As English was his second language, he had difficulty explaining to me what he meant. However, I finally got the gist of what he was saying — by “sick” he meant that he felt so much guilt and condemnation as he sat through a service that he would break into a profuse sweat and fall ill during the service and afterwards. Though he believed that salvation was in Christ alone and had received Christ as his Savior, he had been also looking into other religions such as Islam and Buddhism to try to help him with some of his everyday problems and the emotions he was experiencing.
In response, I emphasized to him that Christ was enough. No religion could give him what he could find in Christ. The answers to his problems could be found in a daily relationship with Christ — by investing in a quiet time each day and reading the Word and prayer. I also shared with him Romans 8:1 and told him that the moment he confessed his sins, as a believer, he was forgiven. Whatever he was feeling so guilty about could not have any hold on him because Jesus forgave him when he confessed. Sure, there might be, at times, a follow-up with a person if he hurt someone and needed to apologize, but he was under no condemnation for sin when he confessed because he was covered by Jesus’ blood.
Though words came easy to ease this man’s burden, after our conversation, I thought about how ironic it was that I was comforting this man when I have had similar thoughts or reactions of guilt and condemnation at different intervals in my Christian walk! I have read the words of Scripture that were hard or I have listened to a tough sermon that addressed an area of sin in my life and have felt at times, even knowing the message of the Gospel and repeatedly experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ, that maybe God couldn’t forgive me or maybe a problem or area of my life I wanted to change was impossible for God. In addition, though I haven’t looked into other religions, I could attest to drifting to other comforts or distractions when I felt far from God.
Yet, as I shared with this man, we must continually remind ourselves what we have as believers in Jesus. As the writer of Hebrews says, we have not come to Mt. Sinai but Mt. Zion. We have no need to be burdened down as believers because we are under a new covenant where we can freely approach the throne of God and ask for His help in our weakness. Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG) says this:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Jesus beckons those of us who are burdened by religion or guilt or life’s demands to come to Him. When we’re weary of trying to be what we can’t, He tells us to take His yoke upon us and learn from Him. We’re not instructed to go alone, but rather, He walks with us in our journey and we find rest when we go His way in His power — not by trying to somehow meet the requirements of the law.
We’ve been talking this series about some hard topics — about being diligent in our faith, and not falling away. Yes, there is certainly work to be done in our Christian walk, but this is work done with a capable Savior yoked in with us who willingly leads us, but also shares the burden with us, so nothing we do in His will is ever that which we can’t do in His strength.
Let’s pray: Lord, sometimes the words of Scripture strike terror in our hearts or maybe even our own misconceptions about You have led us to believe that where we are is too far gone for your hand to save. Or maybe our discouragement is great because we have been believing lies that we can never make it. We can never measure up. We can never surmount the obstacles in front of us. But, through the power of your Holy Spirit, we can. As I read one time, You will never ask us to do that which we can’t do in Your power. You will never, as this verse says, put anything “ill-fitting” on us. Let us turn to You when we lack strength and pray and persevere in our walk with You when it would be easier to give up and fall away.
*Editor’s note: The example theme running throughout the piece was developed in part after reading comments regarding the idea that Jesus is more than a model from commentators John Owen, A.W. Pink, and Alexander McLaren.
Also, when speaking of Old Testament saints and saying they did not have any aid to meet the requirements of the law, this is not to say that they did not have any help by God or mercy. Admittedly, heroes of the faith in the Old Testament did have the aid of God and did look to the coming of Christ for encouragement. God repeatedly offered mercy to a rebellious Israel, but the point being made is that what we have in the new covenant is far better in that we have an access to God that they did not have and the Spirit of God dwelling within us to help us live the Christian life.
Did you enjoy this article? Check out the first two articles in the series over Hebrews 12: When You Wonder if Your Obedience Will Be Worth the Cost: Part 1 and When You Fear You Will Never Measure up in Your Faith: Part 2.
Are you not yet a believer and want to find out more about being a Christ-follower? Check out our Know God page to learn about salvation and how to invite Jesus to be the Lord of your life so that you, too, can come to Mt. Zion and enjoy the benefits available to Christ-followers.
Podcast Notes and Corrections:
A.W. Pink did write about the example of Jesus and is meant to be included in the list of commentators given in the podcast (among them John Owen and Alexander McLaren) that helped to develop the idea of Jesus as more than example.
*Updated November 18, 2018.