Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a recent conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. This sermon is addressed to the persecuted church, and is intended as a call to joyfully persevere through hardship, knowing that, in Christ, the victory has already been won.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership. This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
There is one principle we should consider as we read and meditate on this passage, and it is the same principle that those after Elisha’s time focused on as they preached the word of God and told this story. The question is this: how do you find a successor? First, the successor must have a clear calling. Second, they must be able to withstand and triumph over temptation. Third, you must find someone who is walking with God and who has the power of God in them.
As you read the Bible, you realize it is very difficult to find anyone like this after Elisha. When the baton must be passed, who should be the successor? Who should receive the baton? This is a huge historical question. When we look at this in detail, we find that the situation is grim. Who succeeds Elisha? We know that after our ancestors sinned, the redemption of mankind fell on the seed of the woman. Every generation in every era was waiting for this fulfillment. “Will the seed of the woman appear in our generation to redeem us?” If we compare the history of redemption to a relay race, Adam passes the baton to Seth. Seth then continues to pass the baton down from generation to generation, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, and then to Solomon. It is eventually passed to Elisha. Looking at the big picture of redemption as this baton is passed, those who belong to God, the offspring of the woman, frequently fail. They run and run and run, and then what? Either nobody takes up the baton, or those who take up the baton cannot handle it, or they start well but end terribly, or they do not pass the baton. We are very disturbed; when will the seed of the woman defeat the seed of Satan?
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In every relay race, which leg is the most important? Suppose you are running four legs. Your team is in last place for the first three legs but then catches up to first place in the last leg; meanwhile, the other team, who were leading for the first three legs, falls back to second place in the last leg. In a track and field relay race, one leg determines all.
I remember when we ran relay races in my elementary school. There was a guy in our class who was much taller than the rest of us, who were all about average height. Every time we ran a relay race, he was always the last leg. No matter how badly we ran in the first three legs, our job was to pass the baton to him without dropping it. As long as he got the baton, we knew we would win.
If we reflect on the history of redemption, we find something interesting. Sometimes, these earlier legs go well, but sometimes they go terribly. Sometimes they are very messy. But everything miraculously becomes clear during the last leg. In the relay race of redemptive history, God does not pass the baton during the last leg to any random person. He passes it to his own Son. God’s plan is for the runner of this last leg to surpass all the previous prophets, priests, and kings. He knows that in order to save and help sinners, he needs one who is not only able to escape death through a whirlwind, but one who is able to die for them. He needs one who is not only able to strike the water with his clothes, but one who is able to walk on water. This is why God decided to let his own Son run the last leg of the race. And when the Lord Jesus finished this last leg, when he was hung on the cross, he did not say, “It is all over.” He said, “It is finished!” The last leg determines everything.
All of us know that Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.” But our problem is that knowing this does not necessarily mean we truly understand it. Jesus said, “It is finished! I’ve won!” Yet many followers of Jesus are still running because they think that’s not enough. In our messages and sermons and encouragements, we often talk as though we have received the baton from Jesus and are still running. We talk as though all of us are waiting for Jesus to hand us the baton so we can run another lap. “O Lord, I’ve not been running well. I’ve performed terribly. I’m sorry! If I do not run well, I may lose my salvation!” At the least, many of us say, “I’ve been given this baton, and I must run well for the Lord. I must run this leg, otherwise there will be dire consequences.”
We have forgotten an important truth: the race is over, kids! The race is over! You say, “No, no, no, I haven’t run my leg yet! I have to carry my torch for Jesus!” But it’s over! We feel like we are still running the race, and we don’t feel like we already have victory. So, when we are running well and are ahead of others, we give thanks to the Lord for giving us strength. We come before him and say, “Lord, aren’t I running well?” But when we fail, when we are not running well, we say, “Lord, I’ve lost! It’s all over!” This is the current situation for many of us who follow the Lord. We have forgotten that we have already won.
We have received the message of the gospel, which tells us, “Jesus won! Jesus fought the battle for you! The work of redemption is accomplished!” But you say, “No, no, no, I haven’t run yet!” We like to say, “If you believe, then you are saved.” But we don’t like to say, “Before I run or even step on the track, the race is already finished.”
We see two kinds of people here. One is not satisfied unless they step on the track and run. This person says, “Lord, I must keep running.” They run very hard and measure their salvation based on performance. This leads to a group of spiritual giants who idealize their faith. The other kind of person says, “Lord, thank you for finishing the race. Because of this I am victorious, so I don’t need to run anymore.” This person says, “O Lord, we have won. We don’t have to do anything. Lord, wait for me and receive me back to heaven!” The Thessalonian epistles proves this was the case in the early church. Some said that, since the Lord was victorious, we do not have to work anymore. We just have to wait for him to come back. The others said, “No, we are not yet victorious. We haven’t run yet. How can the race already be finished? We must do something in order to claim victory.”
We always face these two great challenges. If you say we are victorious, why are you downcast every day? I have observed the emotions of Christians for about three years now, and I’ve noticed something interesting. They sing, “Onward, Christian soldiers!” But as soon as they finish singing this hymn, they cannot move. After they leave church, they enter their homes and that warfare-like atmosphere completely disappears. Jesus is marching onward, but they want to sit and enjoy life. If you are being sanctified, why are you so dejected all the time? Many people say, “We need to get back to reality.” If we are victorious, should we sit here and wait?
The marathon originated with a war. At that time, the Greek army was fighting the Persians on the plains of Marathon. The Greeks were afraid because they did not know whether they would win. Miraculously, they won. After they won, they sent for one of the best runners in their army, Pheidippides, and said, “You need to deliver the news to the people of Athens that we have won.” Pheidippides did not disappoint. He ran all the way back to Athens and uttered two sentences: “Rejoice Athenians! We have won!” Then he fell on the ground and died.
I don’t know whether or not you consider this a pity. If you are a soldier, do you want to win or lose? Why did he risk his life by running until he died? There are several reasons. First, I imagine he thought, “I didn’t die in the war. I won. I rejoice! I am alive and a victor! My identity has changed from a person who might fail and die in battle, to a person who is secure and victorious. I am a victor. I am free from the anxiety and suffering of war, and I have the peace and joy of victory.” Secondly, he risked his life by running because his wife and children and every person in the city had the same thought that he had just a couple of hours before: “We are done for! The Persians are coming! Where can we flee to?” Many probably know how horrific wars were in the past. People would rather kill their wives and children with their own hands than hand them over to be brutalized by their enemies. Therefore, while Pheidippides was running he must have been thinking, “I need to run faster, otherwise the people of Athens might kill themselves and their wives and their children because they won’t know we have won.” So he ran with all his might. Running is the best way to testify that we have won!
We do not run because, when we think of Christ dying on the cross, we do not think his victory has become our victory yet. We do not feel his victory has been applied to us, and so we are not very happy or joyful. We do not feel his victory concerns our families, our futures, our eternity, and our lives. This is something worth thinking deeply about. This world is a cruel place. The power of Satan lies in his declaring to you that you are a failure, and he will continue to prove it over and over again. But the gospel tells you that you are a victor, and it will continue to prove it over and over again.
We always face this dilemma.
Jesus has already finished and won the race for us. How does this impact the way you “run the race set before you” today?