By Bob Buchanon
RUNNING THE RACE
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gave attention to numerous Old Testament people who trusted God for specific things during their lifetimes. Their reliance pleased Him, and their willingness to endure by faith led to their being included in the divine record- God’s “Hall of Game and Faith.” This chapter of the heroes and heroines of faith is not, as sometimes thought, a detached masterpiece; it does not stand in isolation. Combining the religious fervor and the spiritual insight, it is a brilliant exhortation positioned in the middle of two grand sections of appeal (10:19:39 and ch. 12) for the Christian to endure.
Now we turn attention to ourselves. Just as men and women of the past pleased God in living by faith, we can too. The twelfth chapter of Hebrews begins with, or rather continues, a challenge to its readers that they persevere in their faith to the end. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
The figures of the passage is that of a race which the believer is required to run, the reference being doubtless to the foot-race in the Grecian games. The athletic contest is a frequent device in the writings of Paul (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil 1:30; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). The Greek word, agon, refers to any kind of contest or struggle in which the competition is intense. The same word is translated “conflict” in Phil. 1:30 and Col. 2:1 to mean “the inward conflict of the soul… implying a contest against spiritual foes, as well as human adversaries” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, page 226). The reference in 12:1 is clearly to a race. “The Christian race, as the context shows, is a marathon race, not a short sprint. Others have been on the track ahead of the present competitors--all those whose daring faith the author has eulogized. They have finished their part of the race and in relay fashion have passed on the baton to their successors” (Jesus Christ Today by Neil Lightfoot, page 227).
Glance here at the truths intended to be taught by this figure of speech. The life of faith is: 1. An arduous struggle. God never promised us a rose garden; He promised us a long, hot, and hard trail. This is not just a stroll or a casual saunter, but a difficult race. It entails strenuous effort. 2. A struggle which involves a fixed goal. It is “set before us.” There is a goal to be kept in view, and a prize to be won; and there is, accordingly, a prescribed path of faith and duty. 3. A struggle which involve s perseverance. The believer must “run with patience.” He must not allow his excitement or ardour to decline. Too many are real excited about running the race in the beginning, but before you know it they have slipped into apathy. “So run,” Paul said to the Corinthians, “that ye may obtain” (1 Cor. 9:24). He must not slow down or desist until he finishes his course. 4. A struggle which will soon be over. In the midst of a conflict, we think it will never end. “Yet a very little while,” and the Christian shall have reached the goal, and won the crown.
GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES
The first word of chapter 12 serves as an important clue: “Wherefore.” It calls attention again to chapters 10 and 11 and those who exercised enduring faith. What has been written was essentially designed to encourage us today to be like those of the past and to see that we also can walk by faith and not by sight. Observe the interesting fact introduced regarding “so great a cloud of witnesses.”
“The writer of the book of Hebrews pictures them as spectators in a stadium, having finished their races successfully, who are now looking down on more recent racers, watching intently and encouragingly, with the spirit of ‘we did it; you can do it too!’ They have become a ‘cloud of witnesses’ giving valuable testimony.” (Studies in Hebrews by Dub McClish, page 212).
On earth they were men and women--with the needs like ours--who trusted God, and they lived and died with that on their record. Use your imagination for just a moment and try to visualize a large mass of spectators trying to cram into the over-crowded stadium. They circle and crowd around us, tier upon tier, on both sides of the race course. On the one side is the gallery of the saints before the flood (Is that Abel over there?), and then there are heroes of the exodus (Does anyone see Moses?), and then the judges (Is that attractive lady in the second row Deborah?), and finally the prophets (I’m anxious to talk with Jeremiah!). And if we use enough imagination we might even be able to see into the other side into the gallery of the apostles, that of the first martyrs for the faith, the early missionaries of the church, or even our own departed friends who have gone to glory.
The saints, having already died and gone before us, constitute a great celestial stadium of spiritual fans reassuring us during the race. They provide us with their testimonies saying, “Stay with us… it’s worth it… you can do it… God will pull it off… look up!”
LAY ASIDE THE WEIGHT
Since faith is not a human trait, we are untrained for trusting God. Our society ingrains us with humanistic ideals rather than those of faith. The Hebrew writer offers us counsel and running tips introduced by the words “Let us.”
“The athlete must discipline himself; he must divest himself of all the superfluous weight, not only of heavy objects carried about the body but of excess bodily weight. There are many things which may be perfectly all right in their own way, but which hinder a competitor in the race of faith; they are ‘weights’ which must be laid aside.” (The Epistle to the Hebrews by F.F. Bruce, page 349). The writer is not referring so much to some specific sin “which doth so easily beset us”, but to sin itself, as something which will inevitably encumber the runner’s feet and trip him up before he has taken more than a step or two. The Revised Standard Version renders this, “sin which clings so closely.”
Participants in the Greek games would practice and warm up months in advance. Think in terms of our men and women training for the U.S. Olympic team. They eat only the most nourishing foods, work out from morning until evening, and give up many social events in life. In training, the runners would wear weights around their wrists, ankles, and sometimes their waists. But when it came time for the race, the weights and unnecessary clothing came off. All hindrances to swift performance were removed; they wanted nothing to slow them down during their run.
The Hebrew coach then gives a special instruction to all runners: “Run with patience.” The idea of endurance is to abide under the pressure, problems, or pain with patience. This involves facing each morning as a new one and keeping in mind that there will be things coming along in the day to test and check patience. We ask God for patience, but we don’t like the indirect response to our request. He often puts us through a process (often painful), touching the nerves that are most sensitive. He then bears down until we finally get to the place where we endure the race with patience.
FOCUS WHILE RUNNING
While gratefully conscious of the pressure of the men of faith, we are to gaze fixedly only upon Jesus, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the same, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). Apart from a goal, a perspective, running is futile and meaningless. “The writer refers to the Saviour here in his human nature, as the Pattern Man, and as our supreme Exemplar. His portrait is the grandest in the whole exhibition of the heroes of faith; indeed, none of those in chapter 11 can for a moment compare with it. This noblest picture is arranged in two divisions; we see Christ on the one side in his humiliation, and on the other in his exaltation. And the inscription set over it reads thus: ‘Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith.’ He is the Author, i.e. Captain, Prince, Head, or Leader, or all the men of faith. He exhibited, during his own earthly life, an absolutely perfect example of trust in God. By faith he waited at Nazareth, with his high destiny stirring in his heart, during thirty years. By faith he assumed the burden of the world’s sin. By faith he conquered Satan in the wilderness. By faith he performed the labours of his three years’ active ministry. By faith he endured the agonies of Gethsemane… and the soul-darkness of Golgotha. Jesus did not ‘shrink back unto perdition,’ notwithstanding his unparalleled temptations… No other man will ever appear in our world equal to him as a specimen of faith. Therefore he is our great Model” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 21, Hebrews by C. Jerdan, pg. 365).
The successful runner is not easily distracted; he must look neither at the crowds nor at his competition. He must keep his eyes on the goal. The Christian runner must have his eyes set on Jesus--with no eyes for anyone or anything except Jesus.
As the Christian has before him the appointed race, Jesus had before Him the appointed joy. What was this joy? It was not the joy of dying on the cross, but the joy of exaltation. Death by crucifixion was a death for slaves and criminals, an experience unfit for civilized men. Of it Cicero had said, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears” (Pro Rabirio 5). But Jesus it. He suffered as few men have been called upon to suffer. Indeed, crucifixion was torture. As Lightfoot said, “With hands and feet nailed to the cross, the victim was unable to move or protect himself from heat or cold or insects. Yet uppermost in the author’s mind at this point is the indignity and degradation of it all; Jesus, as he says, despised its biter shame. What a contemptible sort of death it was--the victim, stripped of his clothing, unable to take care of his bodily needs. But Jesus did not shrink back from doing what He knew to be the will of God” (Jesus Christ Today, page 230). In his commentary on Hebrews, Moffatt said, “It is one thing to be sensitive to disgrace and disparagement, another thing to let these hinder us from doing our duty. Jesus was sensitive to such emotions; he felt disgrace keenly. But instead of allowing these feelings to cling to his mind, he rose above them” (pg. 197).
OUR ATTITUDE WHEN RUNNING
We need not run the race with panic and despair. Encouraging his runners, the Hebrew writer said, “For consider him that endured… lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (12:3). We consider something when we “think it over, mentally weigh all of its facets.” In weighing our circumstances, we are to weigh Him into them as well.
No one has ever needed to suffer alone. No one has to give all to the race without support. He is encouraged and refreshed by the One who “endured such contradiction of sinners against himself.”
Originally Published in Today Magazine, July 1984, pg. 3-4