“Running the Race Set Before Us”
Series: Captivated by Christ (Hebrews)
Rev. Todd A. Linn, PhD
Henderson’s First Baptist Church, Henderson
- Take your Bibles and join me in Hebrews chapter 12.
We are making our way verse-by-verse through the Book of Hebrews and we’ll pick up this morning in Chapter 12. The chapter begins with the word “Therefore” and that points us back to previous material. We always say when you see a “therefore” in the Bible ask what is the “therefore” there for? It’s there because it represents the culmination of the entire chapter preceding. And back in Chapter 11 we read about this great roll call of faith, all these wonderful Old Testament believers who lived by faith.
And the writer of this letter seeks to encourage his readers to keep living by faith even in the midst of persecution and struggle. Even before Chapter 11 he said back there in Chapter 10 and verse 32: “But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings…” And then he provides all these examples from the Old Testament where others had struggled, yet they remained faithful. And this is his point: you do as they! Keep moving forward in your faith. And in our passage before us he refers to all these Old Testament believers as “a great cloud of witnesses” for us. Let’s see it in the text.
- Please stand in honor of the reading of God’s Word.
1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2 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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
I’ve told some of you before about a sign I saw one morning while going out on a run, somewhere in Georgia, I think. And I would see this sign again and again as I ran that morning, doubling back several times on the run. And as I came upon the sign meant for incoming traffic onto a main road, the sign simply read: “Keep moving.” Keep moving. And I took that sign as “a sign” for me during that run. Keep moving. When I got tired and didn’t feel like finishing the run, about that time I’d see that sign: “Keep moving” and I kept moving.
The Christian life is about moving forward, looking ahead, keeping on in spite of so many hardships, difficulties, temptations and trials. God gives us faith to move forward. If we can learn anything from what the writer calls “the elders” of the Old Testament, the believers of old, it is how to move forward by faith, how to keep moving.
I want to talk this morning about “Running the Race Set Before us.”
The Christian life is a race. Running the race set before us. And from these two verses are largely two main ideas that call for action. Here we go, if you’re a note taker, number one:
- Run with Encouragement (1a)
Let’s take a look at the first phrase of the first verse:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”
The writer refers to all these “elders” these folks of the Old Testament about whom he’s been writing in Chapter 11 as “a great cloud of witnesses.” The Greek scholar AT Robertson says that “the metaphor refers to the great amphitheater with the arena for the runners and the tiers upon tiers of seats rising up like a cloud.”
Athletics was a big deal in the days this letter was written; and the Greek games—the Olympian Games at Mount Olympus, the Pythian Games at Delphi, and the Isthmian Games at Corinth. Sports was a big deal then. Not unlike our day now! Sports is a big deal in our culture; especially basketball. You heard about the UK fan who said to his wife, “Now basketball season is getting ready to start. Before it starts, is there anything else you need to say to me?!”
Well the same was true back in the first century in the Greco-Roman world. The games provided athletes with an opportunity to gain fame and respect. In those days you were either born into fame and royalty, or you were at the lower rung of the social ladder. There was no middle class. So if you wanted everyone to know your name, you achieved greatness through military service or by participating in the games. And if you won, you were given a laurel crown, a crown of leaves, which doesn’t sound like much, but it allowed you to rub shoulders with the great and mighty. Runners who run the race were even allowed to sit in the colosseum with royalty.
And for this reason the New Testament sometimes contains that athletic imagery. You’ll recall the Apostle Paul compared the Christian life to a race:
1 Corinthians 9:24-25:
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.
25 And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.
2 Timothy 4:7-8:
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
See, some have read verse 1 without taking note of the context. They came to the “therefore” and didn’t ask what the “therefore” was there for. So they read about this great cloud of witnesses and assumed the writer was talking about clouds of heaven. They said, “Well, there’s this great cloud of witnesses above us in heaven and they’re looking down upon us, and all the Christians up there in heaven are watching us.”
I don’t think that’s what the writer has in mind here. I do think it’s possible for our grandmothers and grandfathers to look down upon us, but it would hardly be heaven for them to look down upon us! I mean it couldn’t really be heaven for them to look down upon us and see all of our bumbling stumbling around, would it?! They’re free from all the sin and strife and silliness that goes on in this sin-cursed world. Why would they want to look down upon us?! It’d be like being forced to watch a bad movie over and over again.
No, the writer means to encourage his readers. He’s saying to us: “Look back at Chapter 11. See all these great men and women of faith. They kept going. They lived by faith. They are like so many people sitting in the arena of your race. They surround you in the coliseum to encourage you—not as mere spectators—but as witnesses, witnesses to the faithfulness of God, God’s faithfulness to give you grace for the race, grace to keep moving as they moved, grace to keep living as they lived, come what may, you can do it, you can keep running the Christian race until you cross the line! Run with encouragement!”
It’s what the Apostle James teaches in the opening verses of his letter. James 1:12, “Blessed is the man that endures trials: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.”
So run with encouragement! Now, watch this in verse 1: Right after this phrase about being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the writer provides a couple action steps for us. See them in the text. He says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, (first action now) let us lay aside every weight.” Let us lay aside every weight.
A runner runs as lightly as possible. The lightest clothing. The lightest weight. Any excess weight, whether material stuff, or body weight, will ultimately slow the runner down. Lay aside every weight.
I was visiting in the home last week of one of our members who has been bed-ridden for some time. And her loving husband has been faithful to be with her during her illness. And we were talking last week and somehow we got to talking about running. He said that he used to run. And I said, “I can tell. You look like a runner.” And he does. Slim. Lean. Not an ounce of body fat. Just has that look. I’ve never had that look. I tell people I run and they look at me in surprise! Their face seems to say, “You don’t look like you could run around the house.”
I heard about a man who had back trouble. He went to the doctor and said, “I’ve got back trouble” and the doctor said, “No, you don’t have back trouble, you have front trouble! You’ve got some excess weight here. Lose some of that weight and it will help you’re back.”
Well, I’ve got a little “front trouble,” too. The writer’s point is that any excess baggage slows down the runner. So applied to our Christian race, our Christian lives, we’ve got to “lay aside every weight” that slows us down. Remember: the writer is using this running imagery as a metaphor. In a moment he’ll talk about laying aside sin, so we know that’s not what he has in mind here. There’s something else. These “weights” are what we often call the “stuff” of the world. So we must “let go of stuff,” things that keep us from faithful living for Jesus Christ.
—Letting Go of Stuff
Many things are not bad in and of themselves, but they become bad when they keep us from running well. Many good things become bad things when they keep us from Jesus.
Someone said, “Good things become bad things when they keep you from the best things.” Good things become bad things when they keep you from the best things.
What are some good things that become bad things that keep us from the best things? Your money is a good thing, but when it consumes your head and heart, it has become a bad thing. When all you think about is how much money you earn or want to earn or have earned, it’s become a bad thing. God is the owner of your stuff. Let go of it. That doesn’t mean give it all away. It means don’t clutch to stuff while you run. Be ready to give as the Lord prompts you to give. It’s His anyway. Don’t fill your head and heart with worry for money and stuff.
Your family is a good thing that can become a bad thing when it keeps you from the best thing—Jesus Christ, His church, His mission! Let go. That doesn’t mean don’t take care of your family, don’t pray for your family. It means don’t clutch to stuff while you run. Your family is given you by God. Don’t fill your head and heart with worry for your family. Remember Abraham with Isaac? Trust God to do what is right.
Your health, your house, your job, your view of success. This can be like so much excess baggage and stuff to slow you down. Don’t be distracted. Good things become bad things when they keep you from the best things.
Speaking of running, there’s a certain place where I run where there’s a lot of trees and brush. And I’ll back track over a path that goes along a row of trees. And I’ve noted that this time of year, early fall, lots of these strands of spider webs. They’re singular strands, just like one line that comes across the path. And what they are is these strands spun out by baby spiders who are actually taking flight through the air. It’s called “ballooning” or “kiting.” They wait for a slight Autumn breeze and then they spin out a line of silk—and it can be as long as six feet—and the breeze picks them up and takes them on their way. And they’ll do this ballooning or kiting for protection or looking for food. Fascinating, really.
But these singular strands keep appearing as I run. And they get right in your face. Not like a mess of cobwebs, just a single line to come right across your eyes or your nose or your mouth, just enough to annoy you! And you break them going one direction, but when you come back around there are a few more for you. And they just annoy you and distract you. One moment you are focused on the run, enjoying the race set before you and suddenly you come across one of those webs and you’re like “pptt! (hands waving) gross!”
And there are so many things in this world that get in the way of your path. Your running the Christian race, living the Christian life, and there are things that just come right across your face to distract you, to discourage you, to ensnare you and entangle you like so many strands of spider webs, causing you to lose focus and joy, but don’t let them slow you down!! Keep running!
Run with encouragement, letting go of stuff. Run with encouragement, letting go of sin.
—Letting Go of Sin
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us…” Letting go of stuff that ensnares and letting go of sin that ensnares.
The writer doesn’t specify whether he has one particular sin in mind or sin in general. Because the phrase includes the definite article “the sin,” many believe the writer is talking about one sin in particular, namely the sin of unbelief or unfaithfulness. That would make sense since the writer has talked about unbelief more than once. Recall Hebrews 11:6, “With faith it is impossible to please God.” This is a recurring them in Hebrews, isn’t it? Keep on believing. Keep on trusting. Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go the way you’d like, keep on trusting, moving forward by faith, like so many Old Testament believers.
But the writer may be talking about sin in general. Lay aside every weight that ensnares you and lay aside the sin which ensnares you—whatever sin that may be.
Some of us battle recurring sins, frequent sins, private sins, that are like an untied shoelace to a runner. Recurring sins like greed, gossip, lust, pornography, addiction, bitterness, unforgiveness. You can’t run the Christian race with this stuff clinging to you. They’ll “trip you up.” Confess that sin, repent from that sin, and get back in the race. Let go of that sin. Lay aside the sin which so easily ensnares you.
Run with encouragement: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us,” and:
“and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,”
Here’s the second main heading:
- Run with Endurance (1b-2)
Run with encouragement. Run with endurance. To endure is to persevere, to keep going come what may. He says, let us run with endurance “the race that is set before us.” Here is a reminder that we do not choose our own race, our own path. We would likely choose an easy course, an easier path. Our race is “set before us” by God. He determines the course. And it’s not always easy. The word for race is the Greek word άγών from which we get our English “agony.” Often the Christian life is agonizing.
Recall the first point from last week’s study: “Persecution is part of Christian living.” Sometimes God delivers us from persecution and sometimes He delivers us through persecution. He brings us through it and on up to glory. He knows best and always does what is right.
Run with endurance, and here’s the last sub-point:
—Looking to the Savior
“…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus…”
We are encouraged by the Old Testament saints, but we are not to worship them. The writer does not tell us to be captivated by them, but to be captivated by Christ. Our gaze is to be fixed upon Jesus:
Remember that the central theme of the Book of Hebrews is this notion of “better” or “greater.” The words “better,” “more,” and “greater” occur a combined total of 25 times. Jesus is better than anyone or anything! Look unto Jesus!
That phrase: “Looking unto Jesus” literally means: “Look away” to Jesus. That is, “Turning your gaze from other things.” It’s an intentional movement of our focus. Martin Luther translated it: “Off-looking,” looking off or away from other things and looking not “at” Jesus, but “unto” Jesus, fixed upon Him, captivated by Him. You can’t fix your gaze on more than one thing at a time.
So, rather than allowing other things to captivate you, be captivated by Christ! He is “the author and finisher of our faith.” He is the one both saves us and sustains us. He is the one who takes us from A to Z. He is the author and finisher, or completer, of our faith. He’ll perfect us in the end because He is the one who is perfect for us.
“Author and finisher” echoes the earlier teaching of Chapter 2 and verse 10:
“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect though sufferings.”
Christ’s perfection leads to the Christian’s perfection. His atoning work makes possible our salvation and completion in the last day. Perfection, as we looked at last time in the last verse of Chapter 11, verse 40: “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” Christ’s perfection leads to the Christian’s perfection. His atoning work makes possible our completion on the last day.
And the writer tells us here about Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. See it there in verse 2:
2 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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus endured the cross for us. He was crucified. He was beaten and crucified for our sins. He endured the cross, despising the shame and ignominy of the cross, the public humiliation of it all.
Jesus endured the cross. The Father didn’t deliver Him “from” persecution, but delivered Him “through” persecution. Jesus was not given a victor’s crown in this life. He ran His race and was given a crown of thorns. But He suffered and died and rose again! And “has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus is the ultimate example here! Look unto Jesus “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.” For the joy. It was the promise of joy that sustained Jesus as He suffered; the joy of pleasing His heavenly Father, the joy of making possible our salvation by suffering in our place for our sin. That’s what strengthened Jesus and enabled Him to “move forward” by faith. For the joy, the promise of future reward and joy, that’s what strengthened Him in His suffering.
So you really have to go on and get verse 3 here:
“For consider Him (think deeply about Him) who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lets you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” Look to Jesus, think about Jesus, see what He endured for you—and it will encourage you to keep running, to keep moving forward by faith.
Don’t look at your circumstances. If you focus only upon your circumstances this week, you’ll be like Peter when he took his eyes off Jesus looking at the waves. He started sinking because he took his eyes off Christ. Don’t do that! Look to Jesus.
Looking unto Jesus and all the promises that are “yes” in Him! Look to the future reward. Look to the joy beyond your circumstances.
Jesus did this. Even on the cross! Remember when the thief on the cross turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when you enter into glory” and Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise!”
He endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him. The writer’s point is: “You do the same.” Consider Him who endured such hostility…lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” Look to the future reward. Look to the joy beyond your circumstances.
That’s the Apostle Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.
17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,
18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
You look merely at “the things which are seen” or the things “which are temporary” and all you see is the struggle of your circumstances, children who have broken your heart, job loss, health challenges and sickness. But focus on the things which are not seen, the things which are eternal. Look the future reward. Look to the joy beyond your circumstances. Look to Jesus!
Look to the One who said in John 14:1-3:
1 “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.
2 In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
- Let’s pray.
Response: “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”
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