READ : Hebrews 12:1-3
There are many great men and women of faith whose lives are models for us, but in this, as in all else, the supreme example is Jesus himself.
One thing you have to remember when you read the Bible is that originally there were no chapter and verse markings. In fact, the books of the New Testament were not divided into chapters and verses until the sixteenth century when a Swiss printer brought out a new edition of the Greek New Testament. Since the recent technology of printing was making books available to a wider audience, this publisher thought it would help if people could refer to passages by chapter and verse. Legend has it that he divided up the New Testament while riding from one city to another on horseback!
I can believe it when I look at some of the results. For example, the roll call of heroes of faith does not end with the conclusion of Hebrews chapter 11. The real climax comes in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the writer applies the truth of all that he’s been saying about faith to the lives of his readers (and to ours as well). What is the point of all these lives lived by faith, and all the lessons the examples of these men and women teach us? Just this: we must strive to live as they did. Each of us must press on with determination to complete the same race that all these great believers have finished before us.
Athletic contests were an important part of Greek culture, and therefore of the world of the New Testament. The writers of the New Testament were fond of using athletic metaphors for describing the Christian life; the apostle Paul, for example, seems to have been quite a sports fan. Paul used imagery from sports like wrestling and boxing and track and field to illustrate various aspects of faith and life for believers. And here in Hebrews 12 we find one of the most memorable of the New Testament’s athletic metaphors. The writer invites us to think of the life of faith as a great race to be run.
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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
THE SPECTATORS OF THE RACE
In a few short months, the world’s attention will be focused on Atlanta, Georgia, for one of the greatest spectacles in all of sport: the summer Olympic games. Imagine what it must be like for a runner who is standing at the starting line of a gold medal race in the Olympic Stadium looking around at that vast crowd, a veritable cloud of people. That is exactly the picture our writer conjures up here in Hebrews 12.
We as Christians are the athletes down on the track, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, a crowd so huge that the individual faces blur and we cannot pick them out. The people in the crowd are not mere spectators, however; they are all former athletes themselves, veterans of the very same race we are running. They are the saints of Hebrews 11 – plus two thousand years’ worth more since then – and their appearance in our mind’s eye should serve as a powerful incentive to us as their example of faithful endurance to the very end stimulates our faithfulness.
The first thing we’re told about this crowd is its size. If you’ve ever been in a huge stadium holding 100,000 or so people, you will have felt something of the feeling the writer of Hebrews is invoking. To be part of such a vast throng is both awe-inspiring and humbling. The crowd – the “great cloud of witnesses” – is the whole people of God, the saints of all the ages, the vast throng which no one can number of every tribe and nation and race and tongue, the company of the faithful with whom all true Christians are eternally in fellowship.
If you are a Christian, you are quite simply part of the greatest movement in human history. The church of Jesus Christ is more extensive in time and space than any other grouping of human beings. Abel and Enoch are part of that crowd, and Abraham and Moses and Samuel and David and Peter and Paul and the rest of the apostles, right down to our brothers and sisters from the Americas and Europe and Africa and Asia who have died in the Lord this past week.
Secondly, the purpose of the crowd is identified. They are “a cloud of witnesses.” It is important to understand just what this means. It does not mean that they are witnesses in the sense of observers who are watching or witnessing what we do here on earth. The image of the crowd in the stadium is meant only to suggest the company’s extent, not its activity.
These people are, in fact, the citizens of heaven, and according to the Bible, the business of heaven is joyous worship. The focus of those who dwell in heaven is upon the triune God, not upon what is going on still on earth. No. These men and women of faith are witnesses only in the sense that their lives are still testifying to us. They are not witnesses of us; they are witnesses to us. Like faithful Abel, one of their number, they “being dead still speak.” And the message they send us is that faith in God is worth it all. “Don’t give up, don’t quit,” they seem to tell us, “finish the race like we did!” Their final victory of faith should be a great motive to us to stay the course as they did.
THE TACTICS OF THE RACE
If the great cloud of witnesses – all the men and women of faith who have gone on before us, from Bible times to the present – is an incentive for us to keep running the race of faith, the question is: How do we do that? We are also given a brief description in Hebrews 12:1 of the tactics of the race.
To begin, the writer encourages us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” us (niv). The first thing we have to do in order to run the race of faith is to “strip down” our lives of anything that might keep us from giving our best effort. The word used here means a weight or burden. Runners have to travel light; they can’t afford any excess pounds or baggage. In the ancient world, runners would strip off their clothes when the time of the race came so nothing got in their way or tripped them up. That’s the idea behind Hebrews’ injunction to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely” (rsv).
In the ancient Roman army, the baggage train was known as the impedimenta, literally “the things that keep from marching.” We too carry baggage in our lives. We have impediments, things that keep us from going forward with God. We need to learn to examine ourselves to find and eliminate the sins that get in our way or cause us to stumble when we’re trying to run the race of faith.
But we have to look at other things besides obvious sins. What about our habits, our possessions, our hobbies and the circle of friends we have, the kinds of entertainment or recreation we pursue, the things we read or watch or listen to? How do we know whether something is right or wrong for us if it isn’t clearly and plainly sinful?
Here’s a good question to ask about any activity, possession, or habit: Is this a spiritual impediment for me? It may be innocent in itself, but is it holding me back from following the Lord Jesus? Is it slowing me down as I try to run the race of faith? I remember years ago as a teenager listening to my father talk about this verse in Hebrews. I learned from him that whenever I was doubtful about the rightness of any action or behavior, I should ask, “Is this a weight or a wing? Will it help or hinder me in living for Christ?” To run the race we must keep the “wings” and get rid of the “weights.”
Then when we have thrown off everything that hinders, we must go on to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Perseverance; the word used in Hebrews means “endurance.” I wonder if you’ve stopped to think about just what kind of race the life of faith actually is. It’s not a 100-meter dash. It’s not a 1500-meter run. It is, in fact, a marathon, and in a race like that, how long you can run is just as important as how fast, perhaps even more so.
I was watching a little bit of the New York Marathon on television recently and the cameras were focussing on a marvelous runner from Kenya, the woman who eventually won the race. She was running swiftly, smoothly, seemingly tirelessly. She had endurance, and that is the great quality for the Christian. You see, the only way to lose the race of faith is to drop out of it. As long as you don’t quit, you will win in the end, but you must run all the way to the end. Just competing in the race of faith isn’t enough. What matters is finishing it.
THE GOAL OF THE RACE
But while it is important to set aside every spiritual weight or impediment and to run with endurance the marathon of faith, the real secret of success in this race is given in the next verse: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2). We need to be running with our heads up and our eyes firmly fixed on the Lord Jesus himself, who now sits across and beyond the finish line enthroned in glory at the right hand of God the Father. If we can only concentrate on him, stay focussed on him, we will never stumble or falter.
He is the author of our faith. He is also its finisher or perfecter. Jesus is both the beginning and end of all true faith. Our faith depends on him from first to last; he is both faith’s origin and object. Our faith is so completely in him and in nothing and no one else that he can be said to comprise it all. Faith couldn’t even exist except for the fact that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, because of the joy that would come from saving his people from sin and death and hell.
My own faith in Christ as an individual Christian is only possible because he has enabled it. He’s the one who causes me to believe. He is faith’s author and perfecter. Faith is his work in me: opening my eyes to see his beauty, enlightening my mind to accept his truth, warming my heart to embrace his person, subduing my will to surrender to his lordship. All the glory and credit of faith belongs not to me but to Christ and Christ alone.
He is also the author and perfecter of faith in another sense. Jesus Christ is faith’s supreme example. He is the pioneer, the trail blazer, the pathfinder who has gone on before through the wilderness to show us the way of faith. His life teaches us more perfectly than any book or lesson what it means to love, trust and serve God with all our hearts. To run the race of faith is to live a life in imitation of Christ. “I see myself now at the end of my journey,” says Mr. Standfast at the very end of Pilgrim’s Progress.
My toilsome days are ended. I’m going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns and that face that was spit upon for me . . . I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth there I have coveted to set my foot too.
This is exactly what it means to run the race of faith: to set our feet in the prints of Jesus’ own. Faith looks to Jesus. It studies the great example of his life, and tries to do just what he did.
Are you engaged in this great pursuit yourself? I can tell you this: There is no better life to live in all the world, and there is no greater reward than to finish that race and come at last into the glory of his presence.