I have been reading Steven Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage. It is a wonderful story of the experience of the Lewis & Clark expedition initiated by Thomas Jefferson. Ambrose says that when Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office as the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation contained 5,308,483 persons, and nearly one out of five was a slave. It was not at all clear at the time that the country could hold on to the existing territory that it had between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, much less either add or open up more territory beyond that. A relatively small area was occupied at all. Two-thirds of the people lived within 50 miles of the tide water country of the Atlantic. And only four roads of any kind crossed the Appalachian Mountains at all. The entire population, both free and slave, west of the Appalachians was not yet a half million people. Nothing at all moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no letter, no information, no idea, no order of any kind moved faster than the speed of a horse. It took three full days to make the 175-mile journey from Boston to New York. The 100-mile trip from New York to Philadelphia took 2 days. And to move mail from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more. And people took it for granted that it would always be that way. Historian Henry Adams said that "great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind." Isn't that interesting?
An exception to that rule was Jefferson himself. He was a man with an amazing imagination and an ability to see beyond what was to what he thought at least might be. He could envision the frontier and travel and commerce, and he had the idea that there could possibly be a waterway all the way up the Missouri to the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. That idea not only launched him into action, but also brought a great investment of funds of the nation at that time.
I wonder if that is one of the reasons that Americans have always had somewhat of a fascination with the image of the pioneer who would risk his life and go to great costs to himself in order to open up new territories to be settled and put to use. If that is the case and if that is something that you can imagine and admire, then you will appreciate one of the great pictures of Jesus in the New Testament - the picture of our Lord as our pioneer. I want you to think about that theme with us this morning.
I need to start by introducing us all to a great New Testament term. It is a word which is translated in several different ways. Sometimes it is put "captain;" sometimes "author" or "prince" or "leader" or "founder," and at least twice in some versions of scripture "pioneer." It refers to someone who is the head or the originator of some sort of a group of people - either the head of a family or the originator of some type of a school or school of thought. It refers to the hero who founds a city and maybe gives it his own name so that people can live there and build lives there. It describes a leader of an army or some other company who goes before them and leads them onward toward their goal.
William Barclay says that whenever this word is used, there is always one basic idea inherent in it, and that is that this term refers to someone who begins something in order that others may enter into it. Now think of the wonderful thought. Here is somebody who is the author of blessings into which others will also enter. Other people will benefit because of his efforts. One writer says that this word describes "an originator without whom the resulting benefit would not exist." In other words, it is the pioneer who blazes the trail so that others can follow.
There have been some wonderful illustrations of this theme in common life. Edward Schweitzer, for example, who grew up in Switzerland, told how during his childhood in the Alpine snow, his father would walk ahead of him in the snow and make footprints which he as a boy could then follow. Schweitzer wrote about how that is a figure of what Jesus has done spiritually speaking for all of us.
Another picture of this same theme might be imagined if a ship, a sailing vessel of some sort, was caught on a reef or on the rocks out from the shore, and if it was being battered by the waves and in danger of breaking in pieces so that all the passengers would be lost. If someone would take a line or a rope and dive into the surf and swim to the shore, risking his life, so that line could be secured firmly on a rock or something on the shore so that people could hold on to it and make their way to safety, that person who swam ashore would be this term here. He would be the trailblazer or the pioneer who made it possible for others to come to safety.
Several weeks ago we had a memorial for Sister Edith Kellett. Sister Kellett meant a lot to this congregation for a long time. She was Betty's mother and Tim's grandmother. One of the things that her family told about was that she grew up on the frontier in the Dakotas in very difficult circumstances. And she told how when the blizzards would come in the wintertime, they would tie a rope from the front door of the house to the well or to the outbuildings so that when you needed to go out to the well or to one of those buildings, you could hang on and make your way safely there and back. Well, that is the thought of this great Bible word that describes what Jesus did for us as our pioneer.
To show you what I am talking about, I would like to call your attention to four great New Testament statements on this theme. We are going to begin in Acts 3:15. This is the time when Peter and John have healed the poor fellow who was begging. It caused quite a stir and drew a crowd of people and a lot of curiosity. And Peter used that situation to tell the people who were present about Jesus. He said, beginning at verse 13, "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate when he had decided to release him. But you denied the holy and righteous one and asked for a murderer to be granted to you. And you killed the author (there is our word) of life whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses." That phrase "the author of life" is drawn from the term that we have been describing to you. It is translated in some versions "the prince," and it doesn't mean in the sense of royalty but in the sense of the head or the ruler of life. Now just imagine what these people are hearing from Peter. They had actually taken the one who is the source of life, the origin of life, and they have put him to death. We should forever be able to see from that the futility of human judgements and human thinking without God's guidance. How wrong they were to try to destroy the prince of life, and how futile their efforts were to try to get rid of the one who is the origin of life itself. These people must have been convicted and stirred by that kind of news. But you and I shouldn't read over that passage without also asking ourselves, "How do I stand in relation to the author of life, the prince of life?" Am I an individual who is expecting that somehow I am going to discover life and fulfillment away from the one who is the source of all of that? Just as these people made an awful mistake by trying to destroy the author of life, you and I would be tragically mistaken if we thought somehow we are going to find real life without him.
Look secondly at Acts 5:31. This is still in Jerusalem and the speakers are still Peter and John. Only now, they have been arrested and threatened because they have been teaching in the name of Jesus, who is the author of life. Now here they are being again challenged because of that teaching, and Peter has said in verse 29, "We must obey God rather than men. The God of our Fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as leader (there's our word again) and savior to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." Now the word leader here is translated in many versions as "prince." It again carries the thought of the one who is the head or the savior. And consider carefully what he is the head of or the source of in this passage. God raised him and exalted him to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Now, what does that mean? If he is the author or the prince of life, and if what he gives is repentance and remission of sins, then life cannot be had apart from forgiveness and repentance. This passage is telling us not that Jesus somehow gives repentance in the sense of just taking care of all of that for us and now we don't need to make any response. What he does is to give people who have made the wrong choice, as they had done in rejecting him, the opportunity and the privilege of repentance. Just having the privilege and opportunity to change our minds and our lives is because of the work of Jesus as our pioneer. If he had not opened up for us a new and living way, none of us would have that possibility before us. Please remember as you read Acts 5:31 that the work of Jesus remains useless in the case of any one of us if we are unwilling to repent and to look to him for the forgiveness that we need.
The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 5 something that applies here. And the word I am about to read is going to be translated "author" or "source," but interestingly it is a different word from the one we have been studying. The concept is the same, though. Hebrews 5:9: "And being made perfect he (that is Jesus) became the source, or author, of eternal salvation to all who obey him." Now please note the parallel. If the prince of life gives repentance and remission of sins, and if he is the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him, then repentance and forgiveness is connected with obedience to the will of the pioneer of life.
A third passage that needs to be considered in this study would be Hebrews 2:10. This whole paragraph is talking about the Lord's identity with us. He was willing to be identified with humanity. He was willing to take on himself flesh and blood. He was willing to call us his brothers. The Hebrew writer says, "For it was fitting that he for whom and by whom all things exist (that would be God), in bringing many sons to glory (that would be us), should make the founder (there is our word again) of their salvation perfect through suffering." The idea of his being made perfect means that he becomes fully able now to serve as the author of our salvation. By suffering (that is by bearing our sins in his body on the tree) Jesus becomes fully able to be the author or the source or the originator of salvation for all of us who would have been lost otherwise. This term here in Hebrews 2:10 is translated "captain" or "author" or "pioneer," but what it is used in relation to is salvation. He leads us in the way of salvation. He is the author of the way of salvation. He is the pioneer who has blazed the trail ahead of us by being one of us and by enduring what we have to endure. The rest of Hebrews 2 talks about how Jesus was tempted like we are so that he could be this pioneer. James Thompson wrote, "To people who are tired of the journey, it is encouraging to know that the long road has been conquered by someone ahead of us. To recognize him as our pioneer is to recognize that the promised land lies beyond our momentary frustrations. He has not asked us to face any struggles which he has not faced himself." We should be grateful for that.
Look at Hebrews 12:2 as our fourth great statement. This is in a context which calls on Christians to endure, to stay in the race, to finish the course. What reason do we have for that? The Hebrew writer says, "Looking to Jesus, the author (or 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." That verse says that Jesus has made the entire journey from shame to glory, and that in so doing he has traveled as a forerunner for us, as Hebrews 6:20 says it. All the way from what we have to go through now into heaven itself, Jesus has blazed the trial. He has made the way, the new and living way by which we can enter the holy place (Heb. 10:20). And he did it by humbling himself and becoming obedient even to the death of the cross. He was willing even to submit to God to that extent. He becomes then as forerunner or pioneer our example. We ought to submit to God the way he did. We ought to stay with it the way he did. We ought to make the whole journey after our pioneer the way he did.
Those pictures of Jesus as our pioneer all remind us of the opportunity which is before us. Because of his work, the way of salvation is open. Because of his work, we know the way can be traveled. Because of his work, we know there is a destination which is worth it. We intend to lay hold on that.
This morning you may need to begin to travel that way in the shadow of our pioneer. Maybe you need to confess your faith to exercise the privilege of repentance and to be baptized into Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. Maybe you made that beginning and then got your eyes off of the pioneer and haven't been following him and need to come home to him. If either of those things might be true, if we can help you, won't you come while we stand and sing?