I recently wrote an article in which I argued that Hebrews 12:2 contains a twofold reality: (1) Jesus exchanges his preincarnate joys for his incarnate sufferings on the cross; (2) Jesus pursues his exalted, heavenly joy of sitting down at the Father’s right hand by enduring his incarnate sufferings on the cross. In short, I said, “Jesus pursued his future joy of sitting at the right hand of God (cf. Ps 16:11; Heb 12:2) by exchanging his perfect, preincarnate joy for the sufferings of the cross.” I argued that the meaning of this depended upon the Greek preposition ἀντί (anti) and several other contextual clues.
When we interpret Scripture, we are not finished at exegesis; God wants the Scripture we interpret to “powerfully melt, sweeten, and ravish our hearts.” The way we arrive at such a place is by connecting our exegesis with our own personal experience, like one hope-filled, inspired exegete once cried out,
Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules.” (Ps 119:41–43)
Jesus Is Our Example
In Hebrews 12:1, we see an inference drawn from the preceding chapter (“therefore”; τοιγαροῦν). His point is that just as the “cloud of witnesses” in ch. 11 lived by future-oriented faith, so should we—and not only that, but we should especially look to Jesus for how to live by this faith. And how did Jesus live? We see how in Heb 12:2: he pursued a future joy by denying a present joy.
Exchanging Lesser Joys for Greater Joys
I love to run, and I love to do pull ups. I love to run because of the pacing it requires and because I get to see God’s beautiful creation as I run down roads, past trees, and through neighborhoods; I also love it because of the challenge of beating my quickest time with each run. I love to do pull ups because of the incredibly difficult challenge of steadily hoisting my entire body (and sometimes a few books in my backpack if I want some extra weight) up 2 1/2 feet or so (the length from my shoulder to the palms of my hands) and then easing it back down. Pull ups are a challenge because it requires extreme concentration and bodily stability. They are a challenge because they require much of my arm, back, and abdominal muscles. Sometimes when I finish running or finish a few sets of pull ups, I can hardly breathe. In fact, if I do not breathe properly, I can sometimes become light headed. Why would I want to put my body through such torment? Because I know the outcome is worth it. Anybody who has exercised or has eaten healthily on a consistent basis knows (and physically feels!) the satisfaction that comes from the self-discipline and hard work it takes to do them.
This is a picture of how Jesus lived, and how we are therefore to live. The author of Hebrews knows that sin is easy to give into; he also knows that sin is like a heavy weight that weighs down athletes so that they cannot perform their athletic duties (Heb 1:1). So, like the athlete, we are to set aside the easy, quick pleasures of sin (Heb 11:25) and pursue the greater pleasures of purity and holiness. When we are tempted, the devil and our flesh lie to us; they say, “Partake of this lust. It will feel so good. Nobody will know, and you will be satisfied in this moment.”
And when you give in, what happens? The pleasure immediately flees from you and a cascade of accusations drenches your soul. This is no surprise; after all, Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44) and the great accuser of this age (Rev 12:10). Though you feel a brief surge of intense ecstasy, it leaves you almost instantaneously feeling condemned, ashamed, guilty, and impure. It’s like if I were to run three miles one morning and at the half-mile mark, I smell the delicious aroma of Boston cream donuts, and I then take a “detour” and scarf four to five of those donuts. What will happen when I try to start running again? At least, my stomach will cramp very badly! At most, I might vomit, and thus my satisfying pursuit of a nice run and self-discipline is overthrown by a 2-minute sweet-tooth binge. It’s simply not worth it. But how many of us have fallen for this trap? I have—too many times.
But there is a grace from God given in Christ Jesus that enables us to look past the fleeting pleasures of sin and forward to the satisfying joys of obedience and humble submission to God’s word. Like running and pull ups, obedience requires energy—hard work and discipline (1 Cor 9:27; 1 Tim 4:8). It isn’t easy to look past in-the-moment temptations, but if the future joy of a clean conscience and a heart aligned with God’s word is satisfying enough to us, and if the fleeting pleasures of sin look as disastrous and God-dishonoring as they really are, then we will find motivation to overcome. The greater joy of an obedient life and a clean conscience that lead to a closer walk with Christ will be our motivation.
We have a Messiah who has walked in our shoes (Heb 4:15), and though we have “not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Heb 12:4), Christ endured the shedding of blood for us so that we would not “grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:3). He helps us! He wants us to be strong and courageous because he is with us wherever we go (Jos 1:9; Matt 28:20). Because he died, he will certainly help us in our fight against sin. He will show us in our hearts that sin is disastrous and holiness is satisfying. He will draw near to us when we draw near to him (Ja 4:8) and resist the devil (Ja 4:7). A closer communion with Christ is what we’re after; that is our greatest joy. So, may God help us always as we seek to exchange the lesser joys of sin for the greater joys that are found in Jesus Christ alone!
 John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel, vols., 1–6 (London; Edinburg; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 1:41.
 My aim here is not to suggest that Jesus’s preincarnate joy was lesser than the joy he experiences at the right hand of the Father, and especially with his holy Bride (Eph 5:25–31). This is a question I am still wrestling through. My main aim here is to help us all live out this truth of seeking lasting joy by denying fleeting joy.