Hebrews: Running the Race
One wonders whether the author of Hebrews had the ancient Olympic Games in mind when he wrote: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Heb 12:1). We too are in a race, and need a faith that endures to the end. Endurance is mentioned three times in this passage (vs.2, 3 and 7). Because Jesus endured we need to fix our eyes on him, so that we will not grow faint in faith and give up the race (v.3).
Looking for encouragement (v.1-2)
Wanting to encourage us not to give up, the author gives three ways to find strength in our Christian faith. The first is the cloud of witnesses. These were heroes of faith in the Old Testament who held on to the promises of God and finished the race God planned for them. If God can bring them through he can bring us through too. The lives of great men and women of God should be a great encouragement to us. Do you ever read the biographies of the great Christians from former generations? And does it make you pray ‘Lord do it in me’? Witnesses from church history and the Bible provide a great voice shouting us on to victory.
Next we need to go into training. ‘Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles’ (v.1). Hindrances are things that may not be wrong in themselves. Others may be able to engage in them without the slightest conscience, but you are in training to meet God. Would you do it if the Lord was physically present? The choice is not between bad and good, but between good and better. The ‘hindrance’ here refers to the training weight that a runner would carry to gain strength before a race. We see fell runners training in the same way today, as they carry heavy packs on their backs to build up their strength. Then when the race comes they take off the weights. ‘The Christian runner must rid himself even of innocent things that might retard him. And all that does not help hinders’ (Marcus Dodd).
‘And the sin…’ The old enemy is still lying dormant within us, as a sleeping volcano waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation. ‘That so easily entangles us’: Like an athlete trying to run with baggy trousers or a sheet around his waste, sin wraps around us and causes us to fall. The question is not whether we sin, but how we deal with it when we do. We can harden our hearts and say it doesn’t matter, or feel sorry for ourselves. What we must not do is let sin stop us following God whose aim is to have us share in his holiness (v.10). The problem is deepened when sins become habitual - that’s why we must throw them off. Habitual sin will entangle us and stop us running the race. Which sins easily entangle you?
Once we are resolved and prepared to run, we must fix our eyes on Jesus. An athlete who looks aside from the finishing tape can lose the race. We look to Jesus because of who he is - the ‘author and perfecter of faith’. He is the one who initiated the new dispensation of ‘salvation through faith’ and will bring it to completion. Jesus came to pioneer a new way to God, the way of faith, and the cost of making this perfect way was the shameful death of the cross. Yet we still try to run in our own strength, preferring to think we can save ourselves rather than fixing our eyes on Jesus.
A joy beyond death (v.2-4)
‘Who for the joy set before him endured the cross’ (v.2). The ‘joy’ spoken of here is not simply the fact that Jesus would soon return to heaven, but that as he died on the cross he saw us in heaven sharing its glories with him. That’s why he endured it, counting the shame and pain of crucifixion as worthwhile because of all who would believe being brought back to God.
Now Jesus sits at God’s side, in the place of honour in triumph, as our advocate. This is why we are not only to look to him, but to fix our eyes on him and to consider him. Keith Green, the Christian singer, said that a really good definition of a Christian is ‘someone who is bananas for Jesus’. A passing glance will not do; we must train for the race and fix our eyes on Jesus, who stands at the finish to beckon us on.
These Hebrew believers needed to ‘consider’ him because they were having a hard time in their faith, and were tempted to turn back (see 10:32-34). They had lost much, but when they considered all that Jesus had suffered their troubles could hardly compare. They had faced opposition, but they had not been called upon to shed their blood (v.4). God’s aim for them was not death, but holiness. He had a purpose in their trials, and he has a purpose in ours. He wants us to grow up as mature and stable believers, and the trials of life are one of the methods he uses to bring us to maturity.
God’s plan for our maturity (v. 5-11)
We sometimes mistakenly say ‘If God was with me I wouldn’t be having these problems’. The Psalmist said the same thing (Psalm 73:3-13). The opposite is often true. When God disciplines us he is treating us as children. All parents seek to discipline their children (some do it wisely, others badly) so that they will grow to be mature adults, strong, good and true. However much we may want to, we don’t generally discipline our neighbours’ children! They are not our responsibility. When God disciplines us it shows that we are truly his children. The scripture is clear: ‘the Lord disciplines those he loves’ (v.6). Warren Wiersbe says ‘If I resisted God’s will and did not experience his loving chastening, I would be afraid that I was not saved! All true children of God receive his chastening. All others who claim to be saved, but who escape chastening, are nothing but counterfeits, illegitimate children’.
God is training us through our trials. As Greek boys were expected to work out daily in the gym so that they became strong, so trials strengthen our spirits. God is more concerned with having spiritually strong disciples than with chasing away our troubles.
We can be assured that there is a purpose in all our trials. We may not see it immediately, because ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time’ (v.11), but God has a threefold plan for our maturity. We are to share in his holiness, produce a harvest of righteousness, and experience his peace.
Holiness is the one thing we lack. Because of our living link to Christ, God treats us as though we were righteous. He does not see us in our sin but as covered over by the righteousness of Christ. It is as if God has taken a richly ornamented coat, one like Joseph’s coat of many colours, placed it upon our backs and said, ‘I treat you as I would treat my beloved son Jesus, because you are wearing his garment’. But it would be even better if our lives actually lived up to the trust our Father puts in us. That’s what trials do. They show us the futility of sin and bring us to share in his holiness. An undisciplined child will never succeed, either in this world or in God’s Kingdom. Once we have been trained, the fruit is a depth of character in all situations, ‘a harvest of righteousness’ and a sense of peace resting upon our lives. Paul tells us ‘those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith’ (1 Tim 3:13).
We are athletes in the race of faith. God encourages us by the example of others and tells us to lose the baggage as we fix our eyes on Jesus. He will train us, sometimes in the school of hardships, but this is not meant to destroy us; it’s there to mature us and proves we are truly his sons. ‘Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come’ (1Tim 4:8). So we should not loose heart, but ‘strengthen our weak arms and feeble knees - and run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (v.12 and v.1).
The Rev D Kevin Jones is a minister in St Peter, Jersey.
Headline, Autumn 2004 pp 11-12.