Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Heb. 10:32-39 NIV)
When I was in high school, I played soccer, which was a strange sport for a guy who didn't like to run long distances. Being vertically challenged (I'm 5' 3" in thick socks), I was constantly falling behind the taller guys in the long runs. Because my legs were (well, still are) short, I was quick and usually the first one to the ten-yard line but most always last in the mile. My coach would yell at me for not running fast enough, and I would yell back, "I'm running twice as far as anybody else because I'm taking twice as many steps!" For some reason, he never bought that excuse.
We had to be in excellent shape because in the average soccer game a player could run up to six miles, and soccer continues to be among the world's most physically demanding sports. I'm sad to report that I have not maintained that level of conditioning since I left high school. But it was great while it lasted.
Christians, however, also need to be in shape to stay in the "contest" (v. 32).
The Greek word for contest in this verse is athlesis. It refers to an athletic competition and is the source of our English word athlete. As Christians, we must not only remember when we were at our best, but we must keep at it and stay that way. We are not to be like the athlete I turned out to be--one who keeps in shape and maintains a peak performance for only a few years, only to grow old and spend time reminiscing about the good old days when I was on top of my game and one of the best in the league. Rather, we are commissioned not only to stay in the race, but to run it better and win it in grander style as our years mature and our love for God and His people grows. We should be the only athletic team in the universe that grows stronger in mind and spirit as the years mature us, so that the enemy knows without a doubt who the toughest players in the game are--the seniors.
Perseverance is of great necessity here.
I had soccer practice five days a week, three hours a day when I was in school. I spent more time conditioning my body for a game than I did conditioning my spirit for life and eternity. Unfortunately that remains true for most Christians, who tend to spend more time in the shower and in front of the television than they do in the Word and on their knees. It is by our actions that we prove where our priorities are.
Faith in "God's power" (1 Pet. 1:5) to keep us secure is the strength behind our perseverance, but in fact we often doubt God's ability to preserve us. Although He tells us we will fly like eagles, we are usually satisfied with nothing more spectacular than an occasional uplifting of the hand during worship. God says we will run and not grow weary, but a short sprint in holiness and thinking nice thoughts about our neighbor tends to wind us. God says we will walk and not grow faint, but many would rather hook their cart onto the coattails of their favorite teacher or preacher and get pulled along for the ride. There should be no wonder, then, that many of us lack strength for the battle in our daily routine of loving God and our neighbor, for we are satisfied with mediocrity and image. We don't really desire to do what it takes to stand against the enemy (Heb. 10:32; Gal. 6:11, 13) with stamina and perseverance, or we would spend more time in the Word, on our knees, and out in the trenches applying what we know. So we live, "claiming" victorious lives in Christ in order to impress our pew-mate, but in reality we whine and complain and look for cover when the battle starts to brew. Yes, we will all have our ups and downs, good times and bad, high points and low. We must persevere, however, not being among those who "throw away our confidence" (Heb. 10:35) or "shrink back" (v. 39) but rather among those who "believe and are saved" (v. 39).
In order to encourage his readers to persevere in their faith, the author of Hebrews reminds them where they came from. Some had been publicly exposed (from theatron, or theater) for their faith and made a spectacle by their exposure to insult and persecution. Other people, those who were not publicly insulted themselves, stood next to those persecuted, and sympathized with those imprisoned. This resulted in the confiscation of their own property because of their association with the prisoners.
In that era, the government felt little obligation to meet the needs of prisoners, so they were dependent upon friends for their supplies. Paul, for example, requested Timothy to bring his cloak to him in prison, "and my scrolls [papyrus], especially the parchments [animal skins]" (2 Tim. 4:13). Jesus commended Christians who visit prisoners (Matt. 25:36), but the risk was that those who visited would be thought of as associates of those prisoners. Still, these Hebrew Christians went anyway, knowing there could be adverse consequences for supporting their Christian brothers and sisters in prison, and there were. But they took the confiscation of their property in stride and with a right attitude. Knowing they had "better and lasting possessions" (Heb. 10:34), they endured "joyfully" (v. 34) the loss of their earthly possessions. They knew that what they possessed in Christ was far superior to those things they had in their earthly homes, and of course no one could steal their security in Christ from them, for real treasure is not stored in earthen vessels (Matt. 6:19-21).
So what happened?
Why did the author of Hebrews find it necessary to warn his readers against throwing away their faith and confidence in God, and in so doing lose their reward? Were they tired of the constant battle? Were they growing weary in the fight? This would certainly be true of some. Others had probably become complacent in their faith. Rich, fat, lazy, and lacking challenges in their lives, perhaps they no longer perceived Christianity as a need in their lives. Like many of us today, they turned to God when life was beyond their control. But what about now? Had they (or have we) stopped exercising their faith muscles because they didn't like the direction the contest had taken? Was their faith a fine thing when all could see it, but a cumbersome bother if it meant being loyal to God on a daily basis when nobody was watching? How is it that we can stand strong when all the world is crumbling around us, but we want to shrink back when there is nothing more romantic and courageous to do than live day after day in faithfulness to God as we show our love to Him by the way we have "helped his people and continue to help them" (Heb. 6:10).