The Christian Race (Hebrews 12:1-4)
In our last message, as we finished out the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, our aim was to inspire courage for Christ so that you might endure to the end as the Old Testament saints had endured. Today, my aim is to inspire joy in Christ so that you might endure to the end as the Old Testament saints had endured. We need both of those things – courage because of opposition, and joy because of temptation – if we will persevere. Opposition requires courage to overcome it. On the other hand, temptation requires being in the possession of a superior joy so that we see through the false seduction presented in the temptation and hold fast to our preference for the path of faithfulness.
And make no mistake about it, perseverance in the faith is the aim and the goal of this epistle. We are exhorted to it in verse 1, in the central exhortation of this passage: “let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” That word patience means, quite simply, perseverance or endurance. You see it not only in the exhortation but in the example of Christ: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . . . For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (2-3). To endure is to persevere. And the Greek verb there in verses 2 and 3 corresponds to the noun “patience” of verse 1 (hupomene – noun; and hupomeno – verb).
Why this emphasis? Why does the author return to this again and again? He does so, not only because the saints to whom he was writing were wavering, but also because it is a fact that many who begin the Christian life don’t finish well. And this is like a race: not all who enter the race cross the finish line. The apostle Paul himself made this very point in his epistle to the Corinthians: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Cor. 9:24 and then compare with 10:1,ff).
Now again, neither Paul nor the author of Hebrews is saying that a true believer can lose their salvation. What they are saying is that staying in the race is the evidence that one is truly saved. And therefore you want to make sure that you are staying in the race – not in order to keep your salvation but in order to make your calling and election sure. And also, though all the elect will eventually cross the finish line, that doesn’t mean there aren’t times they might temporarily wander or careen off the track for a time. Sin does that, and it doesn’t only affect you but it affects the people around you also. You want to run well, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of those who are running with you.
The Christian life is indeed like a race. How so? Well, it is in the fact that there is a starting line, a path to run, and a finish line. The Christian life begins with the starting line of conversion to faith in Christ, begotten in us by a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. And then we live out the life of faith (Gal. 2:20). And then in death, it ends when the saint crosses the finish line into glory (2 Tim. 4:7). This is the prize that Paul exhorts us to obtain in 1 Cor. 9:24.
It is also like a race in that it is hard and requires discipline and hard work in order to run it well. I appreciate the fact that the witness of the NT is in universal agreement on this point. It is the witness of our text: the “race” of Heb. 12:1 is a word which can double for “fight.” It is related to our English word “agony.” And because it is hard it requires discipline. The apostle Paul will go on to make this point further in 1 Cor. 9: “And every man that striveth for the mastery [competes for the prize] is temperate [self- controlled, disciplined] in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a
castaway” (25-27). You don’t just skip into heaven. I like the way Matthew Henry put it in his commentary on Matthew 7:13-14, “They are not got into heaven so soon as they are got through the gate.” In other words, there is a narrow and hard way that follows a narrow door and gate. You won’t manage it well if you are not all in. You have to be focused. We have to be like the Israeli bomber pilots in the Six Day War who flew below radar in order to avoid Egyptian radar detection, only a few hundred feet above the ground. I remember one pilot who was interviewed for a documentary recalled that every muscle in the hands that gripped the stick was strained, and all the attention was fixed on the horizon because it didn’t take much for a jet at that speed and at that very low height to crash.
So, yes, we want to run well and we want to finish well. We want to be among those for whom “an entrance shall be ministered . . . abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11). Do you want to so finish your race on earth so that you receive, not just an entrance, but “an abundant entrance” into the kingdom of our God and of his Christ? I hope you do; so do I. And our text gives us some extremely helpful guidance on how to do this.
There are three main ways in which we are encouraged to run the race. First of all, we are encouraged to consider the cloud of witnesses (1a). Second, we are encouraged to cast off all hindrances (1b). And third, we are encouraged to keep our eye on Jesus (2-4), which is the main point of these verses.
Consider the Cloud of Witnesses
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses . . . let us run” (1). Now we have spent seven messages “seeing” these witnesses – these are the believers from chapter 11. The author imagines these OT believers as if they were fans in the stands of a sports stadium. The readers of this epistle are pictured as in the arena competing, and OT saints are up there, not only watching but cheering them on. That is the picture here.
People talk about home-field advantage. It is a well-documented fact. And the main contributor to home- field advantage is what is called “crowd effect.” The cheering can help the home team do better, while making the visiting team feel isolated and alone. The booing can also get a home team that’s not doing so well back on track! Crowd effect also apparently has some effect on referee bias – in favor of the home team, of course.
Well, the fact of the matter is that the Christian can feel as if they are the visiting team. We are probably all aware of the fact that in past history Christians have been, not spectators, but actual victims to the cruelty of the Roman gladiatorial games. In those cases, the crowds were cheering, not the Christians, but the lions or the gladiators who would end up killing them. But even if we are not standing in the arena about to killed by pagan persecutors, we can still feel as if we are isolated and alone. As our culture becomes more and more secular, being a Christian can feel like a very lonely proposition.
But what we are reminded of in these verses is that there is more than one crowd out there. On the one hand, it is true that we are pilgrims and foreigners and exiles, and so in that sense we don’t have home- field advantage. The world is against Christ, and therefore against his followers. They will not cheer you on, and if you only listen to them you are bound to become discouraged. And that’s the problem with some of us; we tend to listen to the wrong folks all the time. What we need to remember is that there is another crowd out there, and they are looking on you from heaven, as it were. The saints of old are cheering you on, and you need to remember that. And the crowd effect of this cloud of witnesses – a cloud because there are many of them, not just a few, from all ranks and conditions of life – is bound to encourage you. As we run the race of faith, let us remember those who have gone before. We are not trailblazers here; we are not having to chop our way through a wilderness through which no one has ever passed. Rather, we are running down a well-run path. Many have gone before. Many have not only run this path but have made it to the end and crossed the finish line. We are meant to remember that and to consider that.
But I don’t think it’s just the past saints that we are to look to. On several occasions in this epistle, we are told to encourage one another, to provoke unto love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and to exhort one another daily lest we be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). We are to surround ourselves by other believers who are presently running alongside us and fighting beside us. That doesn’t mean that we go out of the world or isolate ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we can’t work with unbelievers or have non-Christian friends, for how can we be witnesses to people that we never rub shoulders with? But it means that our true support system doesn’t come from those who are committed to the values of the world but from those who are fellow disciples of Christ with us.
It means, as the apostle Paul put it, that we are “not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14-18). The corollary of this passage is that we yoke ourselves to believers and find true fellowship and communion and concord with those who belong to Christ, with those who with us make up the temple of God.
The surest way to fade out and to falter is to think that you are alone. Brothers and sisters, you are not. That’s what this great cloud of witnesses reminds us. People – many people! – who were very much like you and in very similar circumstances have been where you are at and through faith in Christ they persevered to the end.
Cast off all hindrances
Next, we are encouraged with the exhortation, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (1). In the ancient world, athletes competed naked. In fact, the word gymnasium is related to the Greek word gymnos which meant “naked.” So in a very real sense the athletes of the ancient Olympic games laid aside every possible weight and obstruction that might impede their ability to compete. The author of Hebrews is picking up on this and applying it to the Christian life.
Now he is not of course commending literal nakedness. It is a metaphor. And we can see the way this metaphor is applied in the phrase “and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” In other words, sin is what weighs the Christian down. I saw this quote today, from Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “Above all things, cultivate your own spirit. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God’s Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin.” To have a clear conscience and your heart full of God’s Spirit will give wings to your feet and speed you on the way. But even good words spoken and good deeds done in unbelief and sin will weigh you down and cause your chariot wheels to drag in the mud.
This is why the apostle Paul wrote the following words to Timothy: “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:7- 8). How do you exercise? How do you make yourself fit for the Christian race? You do so by exercising yourself unto godliness. You do it by becoming more and more holy. You do it by applying God’s word to you and yourself to God’s word.
Now we have to be careful here. It is true that sin easily besets us. There is a category in the Bible for besetting sins. In other words, though we are all sinful, we are all constitutionally different in terms of our temperaments and so on. That means that what might be a temptation to me might not be to you and vice versa. One person may be more vulnerable to greed, another to lust, another to laziness, and another to pride.
But we must never think that because a sin is besetting that therefore I have an excuse for it. However, that’s what we tend to do, don’t we? We think, “Oh well, that’s just my besetting sin. I can’t help it that I’m angry, that’s just the way I am. I can’t help it that I got drunk, that’s just the way I am. I can’t help it that I looked at porn, it’s my besetting sin. God will understand. I couldn’t help it.” But this is not to think Biblically, is it? No, for we read here that we are to “lay aside . . . the sin which doth so easily beset us.” Yes, the Bible talks about sins which easily beset us, but it also in the same verse says that we are to lay them aside. We get no help with our excuses when it comes to besetting sins! Lay it aside. Pluck it out. Cut it off. Mortify it, kill it!
We can’t blame God for a bad race when we aren’t listening to his instructions for running it. We need to get encouragement from the right people, and we need to lay aside the sins to which we are vulnerable. We are not to make provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof (Rom. 13:14). These are all necessary and essential elements to running our race well. But the most important thing we are to do is found in verses 2-4. And that brings us to our final point.
Keep your eyes on Jesus
“Run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (1-2). To look to Jesus here is not just a passing glance. The word means to fix your gaze, your attention, upon him.
How are we to look to him? What about Jesus are we to look? Well, I think there are at least two ways this text indicates. First, we are to look to him as our Redeemer, and second, we are to look to him as our Forerunner.
First, as our Redeemer. Don’t look to Jesus just to see an example. He is one, as we shall see. But if that’s all he is, then he is little different from the cloud of witnesses we are pointed to in verse 1. However, he is not just an example, for we are told that he “endured the cross.” And he did not go to the cross just an example or as a martyr; he went, as he himself put it, “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).
He despised the shame – yes, it was a shameful thing to be put on the cross. But we must not think that the shame came only from men, who heaped all that hateful malice and scorn upon him from mouths full of cursing and bitterness. It was above all things the result of his carrying the sins of his elect, becoming sin for them that they might be made the righteousness of God in him. And it is because he bore our sins and our shame on the cross that we can have freedom from the guilt and shame of our own sins. Freedom from sin and shame doesn’t happen because I have somehow propitiated the gods through my pain and suffering; it happens because God in his grace pardons those sinners who trust in his Son, and he is able to do so fully and completely because Christ died for those who trust in him (cf. Jn. 3:14-17), bearing away all their sin and shame. I like the way that Philip Edgcumbe Hughes put it: “The cross assures us that Christ, in suffering, the Righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3:18), plumbed the furthest depths of human shame and that, consequently, there is no person, however debased by sin and guilt, who is beyond the reach of his pardon and grace” [A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 524-525].
And look to him as the enthroned Redeemer, the one who is “set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” His session at the Father’s right hand is proof that he has certainly and fully “obtained [not just made possible] eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12). Those who trust in him are cleansed from the defilement and shame of their own sins, and will therefore never be put to shame before God at the Final Judgment when all shall appear before God to give an account.
Look to him also as “the author and finisher of our faith.” Faith, which figured so prominently in the previous chapter, and which we are being encouraged to persevere in, and by which a successful race is run, is something which is not in the final analysis a product of free will, but is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Jesus is the author of our faith – it is his gift. It is by the Spirit of Christ that we are enabled to believe. And that is encouraging because if our faith is God’s gift then it will not be so easily taken away. We are further convinced of this fact because our Lord is not only the author but also the finisher of our faith. The one who begins a good work in us will finish it at the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6). He will hold us fast. Is faith necessary? Yes. But the enduring nature of this faith does not depend upon my fickleness but upon the rock-solid foundation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And that is encouraging, isn’t it?
But also look to Jesus as our Forerunner. This also figures very prominently in these verses, and we are told in verses 3-4, “For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” The Hebrew Christians were weary and faint. And one of the reasons was that they had not kept it before them that their Savior himself endured so much more than they would ever experience. He went to the cross; they had not yet resisted unto blood. They had forgotten the example of their Savior.
But in a few years, they would; what then? What about those saints that were martyred? What about the saints mentioned in the previous chapter? How is this fact about Jesus’ suffering an advance upon the encouragement we might derive from other believers?
Well, it goes back to something we said last week. He would be a poor Captain that simply told his troops to go into battle while he stood by and watched. The best leaders in war have always been those who lead into battle. This is what our Lord has done. He doesn’t just call us to bear a cross; he bore a far heavier one. He doesn’t just tell us to suffer; he suffered himself. And the fact of the matter is that no matter how much we think we have suffered – and it may really be far more than anyone else you know here on earth – we have not suffered even close to the extent that our Lord has.
This is helpful to remember, especially when questions about the justice of it all comes crashing in upon us. We can often feel crushed by the weight of the objection: why would an all-powerful and just and good and holy God allow such suffering to happen to me or to others? And the fact of the matter is that this is very hard question to answer, especially at a level that is emotionally satisfying. But what has helped me is the following reality: Christ, the Son of God, came to suffer for us. He never had to do this. There was nothing in heaven or on earth, apart from his own will, that compelled him to do this. Nevertheless, God the Son chose suffering for himself. I know that God will never chose anything for himself except from the best and most holy and just reasons. And so if God chose suffering for himself, I can be okay, at least on some level, if he chooses suffering for me (cf. 1 Pet. 4:19). The cross is the answer to my cross.
But this is not the only way the example of Jesus helps us. In particular, here we notice the way he endured the cross and despised the shame. He did it “for the joy that was set before him.” That is crucial. Remember: Jesus is our example. What this means is that at the end of the way, at the conclusion of this race that you are running, God is bringing you to joy, too. The aim of God is to bring you eternal and increasing joy.
You see this all over the Scriptures, don’t you? This is wonderful news because the joy that God gives is infinitely better than the best joys of this world which are at best temporary pleasures. “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and wine increased” (Ps. 4:7). “Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (16:11). The Bible talks about the countenance of God which makes his people “exceeding glad” (21:6). We are told that God delights in the welfare of his servants (35:27), and that “light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart” (97:11). We may weep tears now, but joy will come in the morning (126:5-6). The joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10). The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). The fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22). If you think the religion of the Bible is about keeping people miserable and gloomy and morose, you have not read your Bible correctly. If you think God is primarily about keeping people sad, you do not know the God of the Bible.
Hence it should not surprise us that when the saint enters glory, they enter into joy: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” (Jude 24-25). And oh! to hear those words: “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Mt. 25:21, 23).
And that is all important to see. Our joy is the “joy of thy Lord.” It is not only joy from God, it is joy in the presence of God. It is joy in seeing Christ glorified. Our Lord put it this way: “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). Our joy will be in seeing the glory of Christ.
So how do you run a good race? Run it well by seeking encouragement from the people of God. Run it well by laying aside the sins which do so easily beset us. But above all things, run it well by looking to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is now set down at the right hand of the majesty on high.