Running the race…

Today I want to approach the study a little different to before, by examining only a few verses in greater detail, rather than a lot of verses with little detail. The text under examination is Hebrew 12:1-3, and as we dig deeper we will see a an analogy developing between us living out our Christian faith, and an athlete running a race.

Heb 12:1 Therefore since we also are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right of the throne of God.
Heb 12:3 For consider Him who endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest you be weary and faint in your minds.

This text is so jam packed full of important information that we need to go word by word through it. It starts with “Therefore”, which tells us that what we are about to hear leads on from the previous passages. Any time you read a bible verse that starts with “therefore”, “hence”, “because of this” etc, you know that you should flip back a few verses to find out why and how the verse under consideration is linked to the previous verses.

In this case, Paul was talking about the great hero’s of the faith (we learned about them in the ‘Have faith!” study) who have walked before us, whose lives are a great testimony of the faithfulness of Christ, who endured many things for His name. Despite their great testimony to us, they are but a poor reflection of Christ, and it is to Him that we are to fix our focus, as we will read later.

We are told that we are “surrounded” by a great cloud of witnesses. The Greek word here actually gives the impression of an amphitheatre or an arena where sports events would be held. It is sometimes translated as “encircled” or “encompassed”, as the seating in a stadium circles the participants on the field. During this time in history, gladiators would battle each other to death in arenas, watched by many hundreds of people, and sadly this also included some of our brothers in the faith being thrown to lions in the same kind of arena.

The next part of the first verse is talking about the “cloud of witnesses”. In this setting, the cloud refers to a large number of people, much like how a swarm of locusts appears like a cloud when there are enough of them. You are not alone in your Christian faith. No matter what it feels like in your situation at this point in time, know that many have gone before you in the faith, and there are many others around the world who are also suffering and struggling. You are not alone by any means!

There is a difference between the “witnesses” in the bloodthirsty slaughters in arenas, and the witnesses that Paul is talking about. These witnesses are more like testifiers, whose lives speak of the faithfulness of the Lord. These witnesses are for us, not against us, cheering us on. When I read this, I am slightly convicted, knowing the kind of things that these people endured for His name, and the ways in which they denied their own desires to follow Him. I am spurred on, a convicted encouragement, to continue in my own personal walk.

So we have Paul already setting the scene of an athletics arena, filled with the saints who have gone before us, cheering us on as we run this race. I remember running a long distance race in high school, and when the exhaustion set in, I was tired, but running alongside my peers somehow made it easier for me to continue. They encouraged me to carry on, just as the saints who have gone before us encourage us as we run for Christ.

The analogy of the athlete continues in the next phrase “ let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us” and I think we could easily have a sermon on this issue! Weight and sin in this phrase are not two ways of saying the same thing, they are two separate issues. We need to lay them aside, so that they do not hinder our running ability!

The weight refers to those extra things we carry that burden us, picture a runner dragging a very heavy weight behind him, and you will see that a lot of energy is spent for very little reward. This is the essence of that word in the Greek. This can be relationships or hobbies or fears etc., anything that burdens us. This is different from the sin in our lives, which ensnares us, and the idea here is that we trip over this with our feet and are unable to stride, much like a runner would trip over untied shoelaces. It is a rope around our feet so that we fall. No one runs a marathon wearing a Santa suit, high heals (pumps), carrying a large suitcase while juggling balls. We need to be free from those weights so that we can freely run the race! Similarly we don’t want our feet entangled in sin, so that we can freely stride ahead. This concept is also found in the book of Matthew:

Mat 5:29 And if your right eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it from you. For it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be thrown into hell.
Mat 5:30 And if your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it from you. For it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be thrown into hell.

The next phrase “and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” is perhaps the clearest part of this analogy. I want to point out something important here, that we are to run, and not walk, it is not supposed to be a casual stroll in the park. This is a endurance race and we are to run as if we want to win! [1Co 9:24 Do you not know that those running in a race all run, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain. ]

We are going to get to this point again later, but for the moment I want you to consider your own walk with God. Are you running? If not, take off your “flip flops” and put on your running shoes! Running requires a lot of exertion, our full effort, we continue it as our main focus. We don’t run and engage at other activities at the same time, I’ve never seen a marathon runner do anything other than run! Even carrying on media interviews while running seems to distract them. If you aren’t running, perhaps you need to pause and “turn your feet to Him” (Ps 119:59).

“Looking unto Jesus” means keeping our eyes fixed on Him as a runner keeps their eyes fixed on the finish line, with steadfast devotion. Those runners who let their attention drift from the finish line get off course and go out of their lane, run into obstacles etc. Our eyes are fixed on Him alone. Recall that when Peter took His eyes off Jesus, he sunk. While he had his eyes fixed on Jesus, he could walk on water. Keep your eyes on the prize!

Let’s move on to “the Author and finisher of our faith”, does this mean that Jesus has written the whole sports commentary, and we just need to be swept along with the flow? Leaving the predestination debate aside, let’s see what this really means. To do this, I want to copy and paste the Clarke commentary on this verse, because it is fascinating and says it better than I could anyway!

The author and finisher of – faith – Αρχηγος, translated here author, signifies, in general, captain or leader, or the first inventor of a thing; see Heb_2:10. But the reference seems to be here to the βραβευς, or judge in the games, whose business it was to admit the contenders, and to give the prize to the conqueror. Jesus is here represented as this officer; every Christian is a contender in this race of life, and for eternal life. The heavenly course is begun under Jesus; and under him it is completed. He is the finisher, by awarding the prize to them that are faithful unto death. Thus he is the author or the judge under whom, and by whose permission and direction, according to the rules of the heavenly race, they are permitted to enter the lists, and commence the race, and he is the finisher, τελειωτης, the perfecter, by awarding and giving the prize which consummates the combatants at the end of the race.

The next few phrases / verses concentrate on who Jesus was, what He did, and why He deserves to have our steadfast attention and be the object of our faith. Jesus “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross”. Notice that Jesus reaps the benefit of His work after it was completed. Similarly, we don’t get our trophy until after the race is completed. We aren’t looking to receive our rewards here on earth, but in heaven when we are finally and completely reconciled and reunited with Christ. Those who want to run unhindered should not be distracted by seeking to be rewarded while the race is still in progress.

Moving on to verse 3 now, “For consider Him who endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest you be weary and faint in your minds.” the Greek of this text is asking us to consider Jesus, as in, to compare our current situation to His. What did He suffer for us, and how does our suffering compare to His suffering? When I compare my sufferings with His, I realise that my sufferings pale in significance!

In sports, we have a gold standard to compare against. When in gymnastics, you want the perfect score of 10. In weightlifting, you have a record score that has been lifted, in running races, you have a time to beat. We look to Jesus as our gold standard, some one who has run the race before us perfectly. We see what He endured, and we know that in perspective we are not suffering as much. We do this, as the last part of the verse says “lest you be weary and faint in your minds.”

They are the verses I wanted to go through in detail today, but there are many other verses through out scripture that speak in a similar way about our walk with Christ. Have a look at a few other verses:

Php 3:12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I am pressing on, if I may lay hold of that for which I also was taken hold of by Christ Jesus.
Php 3:13 My brothers, I do not count myself to have taken possession, but one thing I do, forgetting the things behind and reaching forward to the things before,
Php 3:14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

The language here of “pressing on”, “reaching forward” and “press towards the mark” all continue this same analogy of athlete running a race. Infact, the greek word “ekteino” from which we get “reaching forward” implies much much more than simply having your arms outstretched. It is a straining of your muscles to the absolute limit, the kind of strain we see in a weight lifter as they put everything they have into lifting that weight above their head.

To “press” towards the mark, is an active verb in the greek, something we should be constantly doing. It is not a once off effort, but an endurance race, something we are continually doing. Those who want to dig futher into this analogy can read more in 2 Tim 2:5 and 1 Cor 9:24-26.

Running a race, requires endurance, effort, concentration, self denial. It takes action and energy from us! It is not a passive sport and we are never called to be “armchair athletes”. There are other warnings in scripture against spiritual apathy, and I will show you just two:

Amo 6:1 Woe to those at ease in Zion, and those trusting in the mountain of Samaria, who are noted as leader of the nations. And the house of Israel came to them.

Zion is the holy mountain. Woe to those who are at ease (too comfortable) in Zion. Our trust and complete faith should be in the Lord, and not in the strongholds of this world (Samaria), and when we do this, we will be uncomfortable, stretched, and put through our paces. This walk is never supposed to be easy or comfortable. Chatters who want to explore this further should check out Paul’s warning to the Hebrews in Heb 12:8, that those who are not experiencing the discipline of the Lord are “illegitimate children and not sons” (ESV).

Rev 3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Head of the creation of God, says these things:
Rev 3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot.
Rev 3:16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.

Let’s not be lukewarm about our faith, casually strolling along, it is a race, we are to run, we are to be hot! It’s all about denying ourselves and giving everything to follow Jesus. As it says in Matt 16:24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. At the end of our life, we want to say what Paul said in 2Ti 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

If you are too comfortable in your race, not straining your muscles and running this race to win, perhaps it is time to ask God to shake you up a little. And if you are not a Christian, it’s time to enter into that race, to run for the Lord with earnestness for all of your life.

All scripture quoted is from the MKJV of the bible.