Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (12:1)
The key phrase of this passage is let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. In the book of Hebrews, as in many places in the New Testament, “let us” may refer to believers, to unbelievers, or to both. As a matter of courtesy and concern, an author frequently identifies himself with those to whom he is writing, whether or not they are fellow Christians.
In Hebrews 4 (vv. 1, 14, 16), for example, I think unbelievers are being addressed. Similarly, 6:1 speaks of unbelievers going on to the maturity of salvation. In 10:23–24, the reference can be both to believers and unbelievers.
In 12:1, I believe “let us” may be used to refer to Jews who have made a profession of Christ, but have not gone all the way to full faith. They have not yet begun the Christian race, which starts with salvation—to which the writer is now calling them. The truths, however, apply primarily to Christians, who are already running.
The writer is saying, “If you are not a Christian, get in the race, because you have to enter before you can hope to win. If you are a Christian, run with endurance; don’t give up.”
Unfortunately, many people are not even in the race, and many Christians could hardly be described as running the race at all. Some are merely jogging, some are walking slowly, and some are sitting or even lying down. Yet the biblical standard for holy living is a race, not a morning constitutional. Race is the Greek agōn, from which we get agony. A race is not a thing of passive luxury, but is demanding, sometimes grueling and agonizing, and requires our utmost in self-discipline, determination, and perseverance.
God warned Israel, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in the the mountain of Samaria” (Amos 6:1). God’s people are not called to lie around on beds of ease. We are to run a race that is strenuous and continuous. In God’s army we never hear “At ease.” To stand still or to go backward is to forfeit the prize. Worse yet is to stay in the stands and never participate at all, for which we forfeit everything—even eternal heaven.
Endurance (hupomonē) is steady determination to keep going. It means continuing even when everything in you wants to slow down or give up. I can still remember the excruciating experience I had in high school when I first ran the half-mile. I was used to the 100-yard dash, which requires more speed but is over quickly. So I started out well; in fact I led the pack for the first 100 yards or so. But I ended dead last, and almost felt I was dead. My legs were wobbly, my chest was heaving, my mouth was cottony, and I collapsed at the finish line. That is the way many people live the Christian life. They start out fast, but as the race goes on they slow down, give up, or just collapse. The Christian race is a marathon, a long-distance race, not a sprint. The church has always had many short-spurt Christians, but the Lord wants those who will “make the distance.” There will be obstacles and there will be weariness and exhaustion, but we must endure if we are to win. God is concerned for steadfastness.
Many of the Hebrew Christians to whom the letter was written had started well. They had seen signs and wonders and were thrilled with their new lives (Heb. 2:4). But as the new began to wear off and problems began to arise, they began to lose their enthusiasm and their confidence. They started looking back at the old ways of Judaism, and around them and ahead of them at the persecution and suffering, and they began to weaken and waver.
Paul knew some Christians in the same condition, and to them he wrote, “Prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15) and “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? 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” (1 Cor. 9:24–25).
Nothing makes less sense than to be in a race that you have little desire to win. Yet I believe the lack of desire to win is a basic problem with many Christians. They are content simply to be saved and to wait to go to heaven. But in a race or in a war or in the Christian life, lack of desire to win is unacceptable.
Paul believed this principle and he had a hupomonē kind of determination. He did not pursue comfort, money, great learning, popularity, respect, position, lust of the flesh, or anything but God’s will. “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, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26–27). That is what Christian commitment is all about.
The competition of the Christian life, of course, is different from that of an athletic race in two important ways. First, we are not to compete against other Christians, trying to outdo each other in righteousness, recognition, or accomplishments. Ours is not a race of works but a race of faith. Yet we do not compete with each other even in faith. We compete by faith, but not with each other. Our competition is against Satan, his world system, and our own sinfulness, often referred to in the New Testament as the flesh. Second, our strength is not in ourselves, but in the Holy Spirit; otherwise we could never endure. We are not called on to endure in ourselves, but in Him.
The Christian has only one way to endure—by faith. The only time we sin, the only time we fail, is when we do not trust. That is why our protection against Satan’s temptations is “the shield of faith” (Eph. 6:16). As long as we are trusting God and doing what He wants us to do, Satan and sin have no power over us. They have no way of getting to us or of hindering us. When we run in the power of God’s Spirit, we run successfully.
The Encouragement to Run
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, (12:1a)
We are all creatures of motivation. We need a reason for doing things and we need encouragement while we are doing them. One of the greatest motivations and encouragements to the unbelieving Jews, as well as to Christians, would be all these great believers from the past, their heroes, who lived the life of faith. The cloud of witnesses are all those faithful saints just mentioned in chapter 11. We are to run the race of faith like they did, always trusting, never giving up, no matter what the obstacles or hardships or cost.
They knew how to run the race of faith. They opposed Pharaoh, they forsook the pleasures and prerogatives of his court, they passed through the Red Sea, shouted down the walls of Jericho, conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, received back their dead by resurrection, were tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, had to dress in animal skins, were made destitute—all for the sake of their faith.
Now the writer says, “You should run like they did. It can be done, if you run as they did—in faith. They ran and ran and ran, and they had less light to run by than you have. Yet they were all victorious, every one of them.”
I do not believe that the cloud of witnesses surrounding us is standing in the galleries of heaven watching as we perform. The idea here is not that we should be faithful lest they be disappointed, or that we should try to impress them like a sports team trying to impress the fans in the bleachers. These are witnesses to God, not of us. They are examples, not onlookers. They have proved by their testimony, their witness, that the life of faith is the only life to live.
To have a whole gallery of such great people looking down on us would not motivate us but paralyze us. We are not called to please them. They are not looking at us; we are to look at them. Nothing is more encouraging than the successful example of someone who has “done it before.” Seeing how God was with them encourages us to trust that He will also be with us. The same God who was their God is our God. The God of yesterday is the God of today and tomorrow. He has not weakened, or lost interest in His people, or lessened His love and care for them. We can run as well as they did. It has nothing to do with how we compare with them, but in how our God compares with theirs. Because we have the same God, He can do the same things through us if we trust Him.
The Encumbrances That Hinder Us
Let us also lay aside every encumbrance. (12:1b)
One of the greatest problems runners face is weight. Several years ago the winner of a recent Olympic gold medal for the 100 meters came to our country for an invitational track meet. He was considered the world’s fastest human being. But when he ran the preliminary heat, he did not even qualify. In an interview afterward he said the reason was simple. He was overweight. He had trained too little and eaten too much. He had not gained a great amount of weight, but it was enough to keep him from winning—even from qualifying, Because of a few pounds, he was no longer a winner. In that particular race, he was not even qualified to compete.
An encumbrance (onkos) is simply a bulk or mass of something. It is not necessarily bad in itself. Often it is something perfectly innocent and harmless. But it weighs us downs diverts our attention, saps our energy, dampens our enthusiasm for the things of God. We cannot win when we are carrying excess weight. When we ask about a certain habit or condition, “What’s wrong with that?” the answer often is, “Nothing in itself.” The problem is not in what the weight is but in what it does. It keeps us from running well and therefore from winning.
In most sports, especially where speed and endurance count, weighing in is a daily routine. It is one of the simplest, but most reliable, tests of being in shape. When an athlete goes over his weight limit, he is put on a stricter exercise and diet program until he is down to where he should be—or he is put on the bench or off the team.
Too much clothing is also a hindrance. Elaborate uniforms are fine for parades, and sweat suits are fine for warming up, but when the race comes, the least clothing that decency allows is all that is worn. When we become more concerned about appearances than about spiritual reality and vitality, our work and testimony for Jesus Christ are seriously encumbered.
We do not know exactly what sort of things the writer had in mind regarding spiritual encumbrances, and commentators venture a host of ideas. From the context of the letter as a whole, I believe the main encumbrance was Judaistic legalism, hanging on to the old religious ways. Most of those ways were not wrong in themselves. Some had been prescribed by God for the time of the Old Covenant. But none of them was of any value now, and in fact had become hindrances. They were sapping energy and attention from Christian living. The Temple and its ceremonies and pageantry were beautiful and appealing. And all the regulations, the does and don’ts of Judaism, were pleasing to the flesh. They made it easy to keep score on your religious life. But these were all weights, some of them very heavy weights. They were like a ball and chain to spiritual living by faith. These Jewish believers, or would-be believers, could not possibly run the Christian race with all their excess baggage.
Some in the Galatian church faced the same problem. Paul tells them, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:20–21). He goes on, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (3:1–3). To impress his point even more, Paul says, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (4:9). “After you started the Christian race,” he is saying, “why did you then put all those old weights back on?”
Another type of encumbrance can be fellow Christians. We need to be careful about blaming others for our shortcomings. But a lot of Christians not only are not running themselves but are keeping others from running. They are figuratively sitting on the track, and those who are running have to hurdle them. Often the workers in the church have to keep jumping over or running around the nonworkers. The devil does not put all the encumbrances in the way. Sometimes we do his work for him.
Let us also lay aside … the sin which so easily entangles us. (12:1c)
An even more significant hindrance to Christian living is sin. Obviously all sin is a hindrance to Christian living, and the reference here may be to sin in general. But use of the definite article (the sin) seems to indicate a particular sin. And if there is one particular sin that hinders the race of faith it is unbelief, doubting God. Doubting and living in faith contradict each other. Unbelief entangles the Christian’s feet so that he cannot run. It wraps itself around us so that we trip and stumble every time we try to move for the Lord, if we try at all. It easily entangles us. When we allow sin in our lives, especially unbelief, it is quite easy for Satan to keep us from running.
1 The intimate connection of these verses with ch. 11 appears in the unusually emphatic “therefore” (toigaroun) that opens this verse. It is immediately followed by kai hēmeis, “we too”; “we” are not only part of the same race but also, as 11:39–40 has explained, the culmination of it, so that all the previous runners are looking to “us” to finish off what they have begun so well. The striking visual metaphor of a “cloud” (nephos) of witnesses (“fig. of a compact, numberless throng” [BDAG, 670]) surrounding the runners further emphasizes the solidarity of the Christian with God’s faithful people through the ages. They are “witnesses” (martyres) because their lives (and in some cases their deaths) witnessed to the unconquerable faith in God for which they were “commended” (11:2, 4, 5, 39—the verb is martyreō, GK 3455), but they are also, as those who trusted God and whose faith has been vindicated, witnesses to the reliability of God’s promises. Moreover, the presence of these “witnesses” (the secondary sense “spectators,” while not the main point, fits the metaphor well) means that to fail to complete the race would be not just a personal disappointment but a public disgrace.
The NT contains several references to the Christian life under the metaphor of an athletic contest (notably 1 Co 9:24–27; Gal 2:2; 5:7; 1 Ti 6:12; 2 Ti 4:7; in this letter already in 10:32); here it is specifically a long-distance footrace for which they are entered. Such a race, run in a very public arena, requires not only maximum concentration but also the removal of all that could reduce performance, pictured in terms of the athletic metaphor as “weights” (NIV, “everything that hinders”; the word could cover excess bodily weight as well as things carried or worn), but then also specified nonmetaphorically as entangling “sin” (in general, not just specific sins). The author coins a graphic term that probably means “easily ensnaring or obstructing,” picturing something, perhaps a flowing garment, that clings around the runners’ legs. Instead, the runners need “perseverance,” the determination to keep going even when it hurts. In 10:32, the author has commended them for this quality in the past and in 10:36 has singled it out as the essential basis for their continuing as God’s faithful people in the difficult situation they now face.
12:1. Believers find encouragement in being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses as the saints mentioned in Hebrews 11. Their triumph gives evidence of the possibilities of a life of faith. The figure of a cloud suggests a massive host of these exemplary servants. We receive much encouragement from knowing that others have faced obstacles in the Christian life and have gloriously triumphed.
Such encouragement should lead us to cast aside every hindrance and besetting sin. We are to rid ourselves of any thought, attitude, or practice which impedes our progress in the Christian life. Sin finds an easy victim in all of us, so we must reject its entanglement.
Rejecting sin’s entanglement lets us run our race with staying power. Perseverance calls for stamina or staying power. The race is that path God has marked out for us. We cannot select our own program. We must faithfully follow the route God himself has marked.
1. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
The contemporaries of the first readers of Hebrews had developed an interest in sports. Athletes contended in a local stadium, while spectators sat on the tiered seats around the arena. Although Christians perhaps were not fully involved (because the games provided an excuse for pagan excesses), they were thoroughly familiar with the sports of their day. From the world of sports, the author borrows the imagery of spectators, apparel and condition of contestants, and the contest itself.
Note these points:
The author places himself on the same level as that of the readers. He is one with them, for he is a contestant, too. With his fellow contestants, he looks up at the stands and sees a multitude of spectators. The writer of Hebrews calls them “a great cloud of witnesses.” This may be an idiomatic expression that means the same as our term a host of people. The word witness, however, has two meanings. First, it refers to a person who watches the scene before him; his eyes and his ears tell him what is happening. Next, the word means that a person is able to talk about what he has seen and heard.
The witnesses are not silent. In fact, the writer of Hebrews says of Abel, “And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (11:4). The heroes of faith mentioned in chapter 11 speak, but they do so through the pages of Scripture. They cheer us on, so to speak, for the race we run concerns the cause of Christ. Through their biblical voices they encourage us in our contest of faith.2 The witnesses surround us, for they have an interest in our achievement (11:40).
“Let us throw off everything that hinders,” writes the author. He looks at the clothes we wear and the physical condition we are in. When we run a race, we dress in suitable sportswear designed to provide minimum weight and maximum comfort. And to qualify as runners, we strive to lose extra body fat by strengthening our muscles. That which is bulky in our bodies must disappear, for it hinders us in the race that we run.
What are the impediments that hinder us? Jesus says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” (Luke 21:34). Paul instructs, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (Col. 3:8; also see James 1:21; 1 Peter 2:1).
A hindrance in itself is not a sin, but because it impedes a contestant a hindrance can become sin. Sin entangles, much as a flowing robe that reaches down to the ground would entangle a runner in ancient times. Put this impediment aside, says the author of Hebrews. “Let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, and especially those sins that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up.”
The writer is rather specific. He calls sin the sin. What does he mean? He refrains from answering this question, but other passages of Scripture suggest that the sin of covetousness ranks chief among man’s transgressions. Remember that Eve fell into sin because she desired to gain wisdom (Gen. 3:6). The last commandment in the Decalogue forbids covetousness (Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). And this commandment actually serves as a summary to point out that the preceding commandments implicitly are directed against man’s covetousness. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul calls evil desires and greed idolatry (3:5; also see Eph. 4:22). Even though the author of Hebrews refers to the sin, he himself leaves the precise meaning an open question. The intent of his exhortation is that we ought to avoid sin, for it impedes our movement in the race that we must run.
When the writer exhorts us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” he echoes the words of Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul spoke these words at the end of his life when he knew he was approaching the finish line and the “crown of righteousness” waiting for him.
We, the contestants, must run the race with perseverance. Our objective is to come to the finish line. But as we keep on running the course that God laid out before us, we keep our eye of faith fixed on Jesus. He encourages us to persevere in the contest, for he himself has run the same race. Jesus is the one who strengthens the runner and enables him to endure.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 372–377). Chicago: Moody Press.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 167–168). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 218–219). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 364–367). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.