Three years before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus the Roman, an unknown author wrote a letter of warning and encouragement to the Hebrew believers in that city. In a time of impending national crisis, this author reminded these believers that their only safety was in individual orientation to and pursuit of the plan of God.
In Hebrews 12, he compares the Christian life to a race and Christians to athletes who, if they want to experience the ecstasy of victory, will have to endure the agony of training for and running the race.
God has set before every Christian a race to run, a personal destiny in His plan. No one fulfills his destiny accidentally—it takes discipline, endurance, and focus on the goal to win the race.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us ... (HEB 12:1)
In ancient sports arenas, the racetrack was in the shape of a horseshoe. Stands encircled the track so spectators could see the whole race from start to finish.
"Cloud," from nephos, means "an innumerable throng." The word pictures a cloudy, shapeless mass covering the skies. In coliseums like the Circus Maximus in Rome—which seated 200,000—the crowds must have looked cloudy and shapeless to the athletes on the track. But, though they could not see the spectators clearly, the athletes could certainly hear the sound of their cheering.
"Surrounding" is the present, middle, participle of perikeimai, a word which can mean "to bind or encompass," and in this case means "to surround and support," as the cheering crowds would surround and support the athletes below.
From the context, we know that this cloud of witnesses includes the heroes of faith chronicled in Hebrews 11. These great believers crowd the stands in the spiritual realm and watch us run. And they are not alone; they stand with every believer who has ever lived—all the men, women and children who have already finished their races and have had their faith approved by God. This innumerable throng constantly cheers us on to finish our race with honor and integrity.
We—the athletes on the track—cannot see their faces, but we can hear their cheers echoing from the pages of Scripture and from the accounts of their lives. As we study the Word and the history of the Church, each of us finds people we especially identify with, people who faced difficulties, trials, and temptations similar to ours, believers who had the same areas of weakness that we do. We naturally identify with these people, and their lives especially encourage us.
We have every reason to believe that they identify with us and take special interest in us in the same way. They are genuinely concerned about how we run our race because now they have perfect perspective. At the instant of their death, when they saw the face of Jesus Christ, they knew absolutely what is important and what is not. Now they can see how worthless are all the trinkets that distract us from our race. They know now that the only thing that matters in time and in eternity is that Jesus Christ be glorified.
... let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us ... (HEB 12:1)
"Lay aside" is apotithemi. It means "to put off, to set aside," as in taking off a garment. "Encumbrance" is ogkos, "excess weight, bulk." Ogkos could refer to body fat or to something external. Greek athletes would often run, in training, with weights. In either case the idea is that if we want to win, we have to run unencumbered.
In LUK 21:34, the Lord illustrated this when He told the disciples to be on their guard so that their hearts would not be "weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life." He was warning them of the very real dangers of being distracted from their mission by the things of time.
The author of Hebrews exhorts each of us to lay aside the sin that entangles us—literally, the sin that so easily ensnares us, the one that we so easily get tangled up in. He recognizes here a very basic principle of the sin nature. Everyone's is different. No two people are exactly alike physically; no two people have exactly the same personality traits. In the same way, no two sin natures are alike.
Every believer has his own enemies. The thing that is my entangling sin—that area of weakness or strength that keeps me from relying on God—may not be a problem to you at all. We cannot compare ourselves to anyone else.
Notice that the author does not tell us to lay aside what entangles someone else. Each of us is responsible for running our own race. The instant we become preoccupied with someone else's race, we step out of our lane. We can cheer other people on, we can encourage them, but if we stop to criticize or judge or give our opinion about someone else's running technique, we are asking for trouble.
God does not hold us accountable for how someone else runs. He does hold us accountable for how we run. Our responsibility is to understand ourselves, to recognize the things that hinder or entangle us, and to set them aside so that they do not keep us from finishing our race (EPH 4:22-23). The only way we can set aside our entangling sins is through confession and spiritual growth.
... and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. (HEB 12:1-3)
"Endurance" is hupomone, literally, "to dwell under." The author is telling us that in spite of our pain, we must press on. We must keep on constantly running with endurance. Every one of us faces different obstacles. There will always be times when we are tempted to quit. Especially after we fail, it is so much easier to quit than to get back up on our feet and start running again. But don't quit. Abide under the pressure, do not try to escape it.
The author of this book was not just ordering the Hebrews to keep on running. Using what is known as a hortatory subjunctive, he was encouraging them to join with him. "Let us run. I'm going; you come with me. Let's do it as a team. We have to run in our own lanes, but we can run together. We're all heading for the same place."
"Set before us" is from prokeimai, a word that means "ordained or established beforehand." Every race is tailor-made. We do not get to choose our race, God does. He gives us our niche, our destiny. What He chooses may not be the thing we would have chosen, but the thing that God calls us to is the one—the only—thing that can fulfill us and give us abundant life.
Though the race we are called to run is determined beforehand, we do have choices. We choose whether to run. We choose how to run. We choose whether to endure and to press on to find the will of God for our lives.
Every race has three parts: the start, the middle, and the finish. In a long race, the beginning and the end are the easiest parts. At the beginning, there is always a great deal of excitement. Everyone's adrenaline is flowing, and it is always easy to take off at the sound of the gun. At the finish line, the crowds are cheering and, though the runners are exhausted, they are still invigorated with the knowledge that they have accomplished something—they have reached their goal.
It is often the middle of the race that is the toughest, especially in an endurance race. It is in the middle of the race that the runner's mind may begin to wander. He starts to lose focus, to lose motivation. It is easy to forget how important that particular part of the race is.
An endurance race is very much like the Christian way of life. Phase one of the race—the start—is salvation. In a second, with a simple act of faith, we are born into the family of God (2CO 5:21). It was our first real gaze into the eyes of Jesus Christ that sounded the start of the race for us.
Phase three of the race—the finish—is death or Rapture. That, too, happens in a split-second. We will break the tape and fall into the arms of Jesus Christ at the finish.
Phase two of the race—the distance—is spiritual growth. It is the hardest part. It is a process, and every process takes time.
When we first step out in the Christian life, we have the enthusiasm of the start, the challenge, the desire to tell other people about how they can have eternal life. We are still naive enough to believe everyone wants to hear about Jesus Christ. But when we get to the middle of the race, we start feeling the pain, the pressure, the opposition. The race becomes difficult. The enthusiasm, the challenge, and the excitement are not always there. We start facing the difficulty of keeping and maintaining focus in our race.
In a horseshoe-shaped track, the finish line seems to be farthest away just as the runner approaches the middle of the race at the turn. In the Christian life, Jesus often seems farthest away in the middle of the race. Of course, He is no farther away in the middle than He was at the beginning or will be at the end. But He lets our vision be blurred because He wants us to learn to run by faith.
"Fixing our eyes on Jesus" is the only way we will be able to endure. Unless we look to the finish line, we won't make it. Conformity to Jesus is the goal of our race.
"Fixing our eyes" is from two words, ape, which means "away from," and horao, "to take in a panoramic view." The compound, aphorao, tells us to look away from everything on the horizon and to concentrate our gaze on one thing.
In Greek sports competitions, there was always more than one thing going on at a time. As the runners raced around the track, the center field was alive with other kinds of competition. A runner trying to critique the javelin throwers would not have much chance of winning his race. A shotput competitor who got distracted by watching the runners could kill someone with an ill-placed throw. Greek athletes, if they wanted to win, had to aphorao. They had to look away from the distractions and train their eyes to focus on one thing: the goal of their competition.
Our goal is to be conformed to Jesus Christ. We have to fix our focus on Him. This means that while we run we remember His race. We remember His courage, His training, His discipline. We remember how—from the virgin birth all the way to the cross—the Lord Jesus Christ had the one thing that makes running the race possible: the focus. He had His eyes focused on the goal, and because He did, He was able to overcome the obstacles and to endure the opposition. He was able to finish His race not by what He was running, but by what He was running to; He saw the joy beyond. He had His eyes on the celebration, the victory banquet to come.
He is the celebrity, the hero who has already won the gold and has come back to teach us and to enable us to press on. He is the author and the finisher. He was the first to run the race and now He runs our race with us every step of the way (HEB 13:56). In the same way, His focus on the objective gave Him the strength and the courage to endure, so our focus on the person of Jesus Christ and our future celebration with Him gives us the ability to run our race with endurance.
The certain danger we face is that if we fix our gaze on anything other than Jesus Christ, we will grow weary and lose heart. If we quit, our race remains unfinished and God's plan for our life goes unfulfilled. How awful it would be to stand before Jesus Christ and have Him ask, "What more could I have done?" We will someday see—with the absolute clarity that we could have today by faith—that we had everything we needed to finish our race in glory.
Everyone feels tired or discouraged at times. That is no sin. The sin is quitting. When we reach the point at which we feel that we simply cannot go on, at that moment we need to consider Jesus, then just put one foot in front the other, and take one more step.
Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave ... (1CO 9:24-27)
"Run!" This is a command. Paul, who wrote this letter to the distracted Corinthian church, is now seated in the stands. But he still screams to us through the pages of Scripture, "RUN! Run in such a way that you may win!"
In 1CO 9:19, Paul says that he has made himself a slave that he might win all men. Winning was on his mind. Paul was a free man, but by choice he became a slave to Jesus Christ. He exulted in his bonds because he knew that through his service people were being won to Christ, and he was winning the race that he had been given.
"Competes" is agonizomai; we get the English word "agony" from it. If we want to win, we will have to agonize. What kind of agony is Paul talking about? An internal agony that comes from the struggle to achieve self-control. The phrase "exercises self-control" is a translation of one Greek word, egkrateuomai, from kratos, which means "rule or authority" and en, "within." No one ever becomes a great athlete as long as the only discipline he has is the coach's discipline. A great athlete is one who develops discipline within, so that whether the coach is around or not, he never lets up in his training. He demands more of himself because he is focused on the goal. Only that kind of self-control can drive him to the end of the race.
If athletes in physical competition can press on so single-mindedly toward a perishable reward, how much more driven should we be who run toward an eternal reward? We are called to do one thing: focus on the Lord Jesus Christ. As we study and meditate on and apply the Word of God—which is the mind of Christ—we are moving toward the goal.
Everything in the cosmos is deadset against our maintaining that focus. Each of us chooses for ourselves whether we will give in to the distractions and the entanglements or whether we will press on to finish the race with honor.