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 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 down, 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 sweatsuits 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.
Faith Fixed on Jesus
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)
It has been rightly said that the story of our lives is only finished in the lives of other people, others we have loved and led, influenced and inspired. The same can be said of the great eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, that it is only finished in the chapter that follows, in which the example of these heroes of the faith reaches out to us. The goal of chapter 11 was not mere history but exhortation. This is why chapter 12 begins with the key word “therefore,” demanding that we deal with the implications of what we have learned, applying the lessons of faith to our own lives.
The Context of the Christian Life
There are four things we should notice from this passage, beginning with the context of the Christian life. It is often said that context is the key to interpretation, so the question is this: what is the context, what is the arena, in which you as a Christian should interpret your life? Do you think of yourself living in the midst of a secular society, with its testimony of materialism and sensuality and relativism? Or do you think of yourself as part of a particular corporation or organization with its own mandates to conformity? Do you think of yourself as part of the family in which you grew up, the neighborhood in which you live, a racial group, or a socio-economic class? However you answer, how you conceive of the context or arena of your life will dramatically shape your manner of living.
The writer of Hebrews suggests a far different context, namely, that Christians should think of themselves as “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who bear testimony to faith in the Lord. If you are a believer, he says, this is the context in which you should see yourself. This is the body to which you belong, and whose approval you should court. This is the audience, as it were, before whom you live, a great arena filled with the beloved of God, the faithful of all ages, and now is the day when you are running your race to the sounds of their approval and encouragement.
This cloud of witnesses refers, of course, to the heroes of the faith presented in chapter 11: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the others. Sometimes this is called the Westminster Abbey of biblical faith, comparing this chapter to the great church in England where so many of that nation’s heroes are buried. But there is a great difference here, namely, that the writer of Hebrews does not see these as dead men to be remembered, but living witnesses to be heard. Though dead, they still live, and what was said of Abel can be said of them all: “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4). John Owen writes, “All the saints of the Old Testament, as it were, stand looking on us in our striving, encouraging us unto our duty, and ready to testify unto our success with their applauses. They are placed about us unto this end; we are ‘compassed’ with them.”
This, then, is how you should conceive of your life. You belong to this noble company of God’s people, living in this world but glorifying God through faith. This is the context of your life. You are surrounded by those with whom you will spend eternity, those who will be your brothers and sisters long after everyone else is consigned to judgment. You should hear their voices and conform to the pattern of their faith, not to the pattern of this world.
The Calling of the Christian Life
This leads us to consider the calling of the Christian life. Verse 1 concludes by telling us that God has marked out a race for us. He has laid out a course for our lives. There are places we are to go, things we are to do, challenges we are to confront. We do not know where this course winds on its way to heaven, nor, frankly, is it important for us to know. Our calling is to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Many Christians spend far too much effort trying to figure out what lies ahead, when our calling is to persevere in faith wherever God should lead us.
This metaphor of life as a race was common in ancient literature as well as in the Bible. Paul employs it in 1 Corinthians 9:24–25, where he tells Christians to “run in such a way as to get the prize … a crown that will last forever” (niv). He describes his own life in similar terms, writing at the end of his life to his disciple Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
The writer of Hebrews now applies the same terminology to us. First, he tells us that the stands are packed with the saints of old. He places them there not merely as spectators, but also as a cheering section. He tells us to pay attention to their testimony, to heed the encouragement they give us. There is Abel reminding us of the true sacrifice we are to trust. Out cries Noah that while the world is condemned there is an ark of salvation. Abraham cheers out for all who hope for promises yet unfulfilled, just the way he did for so many years in Canaan. Moses shouts out to those who, like him, must forfeit status and favor in the world, riches and rank, in order to follow the Lord. Their presence gives us the home-field advantage for our race, if only we will see them there by faith and hear their cries.
Earlier we saw that the context in which we envision ourselves has a great influence over our thinking, but how we conceive of our calling in life is even more vital. What is the purpose or goal of your life? Is it to attain a certain standard of wealth? Is it to rise to a position of influence and power? Is it to be popular or to enjoy maximum leisure and fun? These are the ways our unbelieving society defines success, but not how a Christian should think of his or her life.
How liberating it is for the Christian to realize that his or her true calling is the race of faith in the living God: to persevere in the various settings where God will place you, to hold fast your convictions and your obedience to God in different settings and seasons of life, to grow in grace and to glorify God through faith all the way to the end of your life. This is our victory: not worldly standards of success, but enduring in faith to the end.
This is not an easy calling, and just as if we were athletes training hard, the writer of Hebrews gives us training instructions: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (v. 1). He speaks here of two things, starting with weights or, as some versions put it, hindrances. In the ancient Greek games, a runner trained to make his body lean. Then, before the race began, he stripped off his long garments to run completely naked. The Greek word here for hindrances may be used in both of these ways: of excess body weight and of weighty garments. The writer of Hebrews tells us that anything that slows us down must be discarded if we are to run well.
This exhortation helps us with all sorts of decisions about our lives. People will say, “This is not technically a sin, so it must be all right for me.” But here we read that anything that weighs you down, anything that hinders your spiritual progress, should be discarded. Perhaps it involves your lifestyle. For instance, many Christians today have bought into the entertainment culture, giving vast hours to mindless television, unwholesome literature, and objectionable movies. We should ask ourselves, “Is this a help or a hindrance to me spiritually?” Hindrances can be career ambitions, hobbies, associations and friendships, habits and preoccupations. Any of these may or may not be a problem, and it will vary from person to person. But each of us should look at the things in our lives and ask, “Is it a help? Is it a hindrance?” If it is the latter, then the wise believer will let the hindrance go, not wanting to be weighed down in the race.
When we turn to the matter of sin, the situation is far more serious. Hindrances weigh us down, but sin entangles our feet, possibly bringing us down to the ground. Notice how the writer puts it: “sin which clings so closely.” The point is that sin entangles us. We take sin lightly at our great peril. Sin is deceitful, as we read in chapter 3, able to lead us off the path altogether. Therefore, we must be wise regarding sin, seeking grace from God to be free from actual sins that we know about, while shunning the temptations to sin that abound.
Think, for instance, how quickly and thoroughly a great man like King David fell into sin when he allowed his heart to lust after Bathsheba. How entangled he became, and what a horrible impact that sin had on his life and on his whole family, even the entire kingdom! He was running brilliantly, as almost no one had run before, but sin entangled him and took him down. Sexual sin and pride continue to entangle the feet of many today, including leaders in the church.
Therefore let us flee temptation and oppose all sin. Sin is the agent of death in our world; it is the master of untold slaves; sin is never profitable, and the pleasures it offers the unwise are all filled with deadly poison. Even true believers, whose debts are paid by the blood of the Lamb, can scarcely afford sin, for we have a race to run, a course marked out by God for these few short years of our lives, and unless we actively shun sin we will quickly find ourselves distracted and entangled.
This is our calling, the challenging race of a life of faith. Notice what kind of race we run. It is not a short sprint, and we will not finish it with a reckless burst of energy. It is a long-distance race, and our great virtue is not speed but perseverance. Many experience the flush of excitement at conversion, only to find that enthusiasm must be converted into endurance. What Jesus said to the church at Thyatira should be true for us as well: “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance” (Rev. 2:19).
The Encouragement of the Christian Life
This leads us to what I often call “the all-purpose Christian advice,” from Hebrews 12:2, which gives the encouragement of the Christian life: I say this because there is no circumstance, no difficulty, no temptation for which this is not a reliable guide: “looking to Jesus.” This is the “secret” of the Christian life, the encouragement we need for our faith: to place our eyes not on the world with its enticements and threats, not even on ourselves with our petty successes and many failures, but on him who is the source and fountain of all our spiritual vigor. John Owen writes:
A constant view of the glory of Christ will revive our souls and cause our spiritual lives to flourish and thrive.… The more we behold the glory of Christ by faith now, the more spiritual and the more heavenly will be the state of our souls. The reason why the spiritual life in our souls decays and withers is because we fill our minds full of other things.… But when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, these things will be expelled.… This is how our spiritual life is revived.
The writer of Hebrews has shown us the context of our life of faith, and the calling of our life of faith; now he sets before us the encouragement our faith requires: “looking to Jesus.” There are three ways that this verse encourages us. First, it shows us Christ as the premier example for our faith. The Greek word translated as “founder” (archēgos) is better rendered “forerunner” or “pioneer.” It describes one who goes ahead to blaze the trail and overcome barriers. Similarly, the word “perfecter” (teleiōtēs) connotes the idea that Jesus is the supreme and perfect example of faith, especially since the Greek text speaks of the faith rather than our faith.
It is noteworthy that this verse focuses on the ordeal of the cross, where Jesus’ faith in God was put to the greatest test and given the most brilliant display. The religious authorities said of him on the cross, “He trusts in God” (Matt. 27:43). They were mocking him, yet how true it was. By faith Jesus pleased God as Enoch did. Like Abraham, Jesus looked forward to the city to come and, by faith, he was willing to make the supreme sacrifice. By faith Jesus, like Moses, set aside earthly glory that he might be numbered among the afflicted people of God and become their deliverer. By faith Jesus made the sacrifice Abel’s faith presented. If the heroes of the Old Testament are lights testifying to faith in God, Jesus on the cross is a blazing sun bringing faith to its most dazzling expression.
Jesus endured both suffering and shame on the cross. The Hebrew Christians were in danger of shrinking back from these very things, just as we find them so difficult to endure. It was by faith that Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame,” persevering to his appointed end and thus entering into his glory in heaven. He “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God,” because he faithfully endured suffering and did not fear the world’s contempt. This provides an example for us, that we would bear the cross in our own lives. First Peter 2:21 says, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” How important, then, for us to fix our eyes upon him. James M. Boice wrote:
The only thing that will ever get us moving along this path of self-denial and discipleship is fixing our eyes on Jesus and what he has done for us, coming to love him as a result, and thus wanting also to be with him both now and always. Jesus is our only possible model for self-denial. He is the very image of cross-bearing. And it is for love of him and a desire to be like him that we take up our cross and willingly follow him.
Jesus is our example in perseverance, and also in spiritual joy: “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). That is an amazing statement and it says much about his faith. We may conceive of Jesus’ joy before the cross in a number of ways. First, Jesus took joy in doing his Father’s will. He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). William Newell writes, “There is no joy like the accomplishment of a noble task: and of the noblest task of all eternity, Christ was to say, ‘I have finished it.’ ”
Jesus also looked forward to his future reunion with the Father in heaven and to receiving his delight with the greatest of joy. He rejoiced at the knowledge of what his suffering and death would accomplish, namely, the redemption of a people for himself. In short, Jesus rejoiced because he saw the crown beyond the cross; he saw the purchase of his blood, even the church that would be his bride forever in the regenerated glory of the endless age to come. In the same vein, the apostle James writes to us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). We should rejoice at trials, because by enduring we gain the crown that waits beyond the cross.
Jesus is not only the example for our faith, but he is also the object of our faith. He waits at the finish line for us; it is to him and for him that we run. We endure and persevere because we want to know him and join him and share the blessings of his salvation. This again explains why the cross is emphasized here, for the cross is not only the greatest example of Jesus’ faith, but also the focus of our faith in him. We see his blood shed for our forgiveness; we see the wrath of God spent on him, and we find our safety there—our righteousness at his cross. To be a Christian, then, means to rely on his atoning blood, on his finished work for our salvation, and to hold this gospel as the great treasure of our heart. Henceforth we want to be faithful to him. We desire to please and serve him, and we would endure to the end so that we will spend eternity with him. This is what Paul says of his own ambition: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.… One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12–14 niv). We fix our eyes on Jesus because he is the example and object of our faith.
Third, we fix our eyes on Jesus because he is the source of our faith. It is in this sense that the translation “founder and perfecter of our faith” has real merit. Jesus is not merely an example, like some long-dead hero. Nor is he the object of our faith as a mere philosophical ideal. Rather, he is an active recipient of our faith, active in inspiring and empowering faith in us because he lives now. Faith in Christ produces union with a living Lord who reigns in the heavens, who is seated at the right hand of God’s throne in power. Therefore, when we fix our eyes on him, he works in us by his power, sending God’s Holy Spirit to sustain us in our trials. Thomas Watson says, “As the Spirit is at work in the heart, so is Christ at work in heaven. Christ is ever praying that the saint’s grace may hold out.… That prayer which Christ made for Peter, was the copy of the prayer he now makes for believers. ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not’ (Lk. 22:32). How can the children of such prayers perish?”
This encouragement—“looking to Jesus”—is vitally important in such a difficult race as ours. Those who fix their gaze on the world and the things of the world will be conformed to its pattern. But in a still more powerful and reliable way, those whose gaze is fixed on Jesus will find themselves changed into his pattern—not merely because of the working of our own hearts, but because of his active and transforming work through the Holy Spirit. With our eyes fixed on him, we are, Paul says, “being transformed into [his] image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
How essential it is that we grasp this principle! As Christians we live in the context of this great cloud of witnesses, with a race to run with endurance, a race that includes the suffering and shame of the cross. Therefore, we must remove every hindrance and entangling sin, for this is already more than the flesh can endure. Yet we are encouraged and empowered in our faith as we look to Jesus Christ, our great example of faith, the object of our faith, and the source of our faith, its author and finisher, as he reigns with power from on high in us and for us.
If you have never looked to Jesus in faith, if you have yet to enter this godly calling of those who follow him, this exhortation applies especially to you. Look to Jesus Christ, and you will find one who is altogether lovely, whose example of life and death transcends all others, and most important, who suffered death that you might be forgiven and have eternal life. Unless you look to Jesus in faith, you will never know the life that is of God, and though you may enjoy this world for a season, there will be no crown for you at the end, but only the judgment of God and the punishment your sins deserve.
A Cure for Weary Hearts
Lastly, we find in this passage a cure for weary hearts. This is what verse 3 says: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Here the writer of Hebrews anticipates a problem and prescribes its cure.
This verse assumes something believers know all too well, namely, that from time to time Christians grow weary and become downcast. If you feel this way, you are not exceptional; this is something you should expect. Especially when faced with prolonged difficulty or trials, even the strongest Christian can experience spiritual depression. The cure for this, he says, is to consider Jesus in his own struggle with the opposition of the world.
This may sound similar to the exhortation in verse 2 to fix our eyes on Jesus, but there is a difference in emphasis here. In verse 2 the Greek word aphoraō meant to look away from one thing to another; the emphasis was to keep looking away from distractions and to fix our eyes on Jesus. Here in verse 3 the writer uses a different word, analogizomai, which means “to consider intently.” This is an accounting term related to the English word “logistics”; when we speak of “logging” something in, we mean that a record should be kept of what transpired. The point here is that we should meditate on or reflect on, take stock of Jesus’ life and death as it relates to our own struggle, and especially remember how God ordained his suffering for his and our glory. We are to remember that beyond the cross there lies a crown; it was so for our Lord, and so it will be for us. As Paul writes, doing the very thing our text suggests, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). That is the cure for our hearts when we grow weary in the long race of this life of faith.
How do we consider Jesus? By consulting what the Bible says about him. We read the Gospel accounts and learn what Jesus said and did and how God delivered him. We read the Epistles, which explain the significance of his life and death and resurrection. Indeed, in the Old Testament we see Christ in his work, as he is prophesied and represented by various types and symbols.
This is the very thing we find our Lord doing for his disciples in the Gospel accounts. Perhaps the worthiest way to conclude these studies of faith in Hebrews 11, especially as we are reminded here that they all direct us to Jesus, is with an account that appears in Luke 24. There we learn of two downcast disciples walking away from Jerusalem on the very day that Jesus was resurrected. They were weary and had lost heart, but unbeknownst to them, Jesus himself, risen from the grave, came alongside them on the road. Jesus asked what they were talking about; Luke tells us, “they stood still, looking sad” (v. 17). This is how Jesus finds us sometimes, discouraged and standing still instead of running the race. The two disciples told Jesus about a man from Nazareth they thought would be the Messiah. But, they added, he had been arrested and killed, and they did not understand the confusing reports they had heard about him being seen afterward.
Jesus responded by pointing them to Scripture: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). What Jesus did for them, we are to do for ourselves, seeking and finding him and contemplating his life and ministry in the pages of Scripture.
When the party arrived at their destination, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples and then miraculously disappeared. Yet, in spite of this direct encounter with the risen Lord and his dramatic disappearance, the two disciples, now greatly encouraged, marveled not at this supernatural experience but at the things they had seen in the Scriptures! “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ ” (Luke 24:32).
This is what we will find when our hearts have grown cold on the long and sometimes difficult race that is our calling as Christ’s disciples. We open the Scriptures and Jesus teaches us of himself, no less than he did for those two disciples, and as we consider him in his sufferings for us, his victory over sin and death, our hearts too are warmed and even burn within us. This is what makes us rejoice as we should, singing words of confident faith:
My hope is in the Lord who gave himself for me,
and paid the price of all my sin at Calvary.
For me he died, for me he lives,
and everlasting life and light he freely gives.
If you want to live that way, with that kind of joy and power, then you must fix your eyes on Jesus, not on this world or anything in it, and consider how great a Savior he really is.
1. Wherefore, seeing we also, &c. This conclusion is, as it were, an epilogue to the former chapter, by which he shews the end for which he gave a catalogue of the saints who excelled in faith under the Law, even that every one should be prepared to imitate them; and he calls a large multitude metaphorically a cloud, for he sets what is dense in opposition to what is thinly scattered. Had they been a few in number, yet they ought to have roused us by their example; but as they were a vast throng, they ought more powerfully to stimulate us.
He says that we are so surrounded by this dense throng, that wherever we turn our eyes many examples of faith immediately meet us. The word witnesses I do not take in a general sense, as though he called them the martyrs of God, and I apply it to the case before us, as though he had said that faith is sufficiently proved by their testimony, so that no doubt ought to be entertained; for the virtues of the saints are so many testimonies to confirm us, that we, relying on them as our guides and associates, ought to go onward to God with more alacrity.
Let us lay aside every weight, or every burden, &c. As he refers to the likeness of a race, he bids us to be lightly equipped; for nothing more prevents haste than to be encumbered with burdens. Now there are various burdens which delay and impede our spiritual course, such as the love of this present life, the pleasures of the world, the lusts of the flesh, worldly cares, riches also and honours, and other things of this kind. Whosoever, then, would run in the course prescribed by Christ, must first disentangle himself from all these impediments, for we are already of ourselves more tardy than we ought to be, so no other causes of delay should be added.
We are not however bidden to cast away riches or other blessings of this life, except so far as they retard our course; for Satan by these as by toils retains and impedes us.
Now, the metaphor of a race is often to be found in Scripture; but here it means not any kind of race, but a running contest, which is wont to call forth the greatest exertions. The import of what is said then is, that we are engaged in a contest, even in a race the most celebrated, that many witnesses stand around us, that the Son of God is the umpire who invites and exhorts us to secure the prize, and that therefore it would be most disgraceful for us to grow weary or inactive in the midst of our course. And at the same time the holy men whom he mentioned, are not only witnesses, but have been associates in the same race, who have beforehand shewn the way to us; and yet he preferred calling them witnesses rather than runners, in order to intimate that they are not rivals, seeking to snatch from us the prize, but approvers to applaud and hail our victory; and Christ also is not only the umpire, but also extends his hand to us, and supplies us with strength and energy; in short, he prepares and fits us to enter on our course, and by his power leads us on to the end of the race.
And the sin which doth so easily beset us, or, stand around us, &c. This is the heaviest burden that impedes us. And he says that we are entangled, in order that we may know, that no one is fit to run except he has stripped off all toils and snares. He speaks not of outward, or, as they say, of actual sins, but of the very fountain, even concupiscence or lust, which so possesses every part of us, that we feel that we are on every side held by its snares.
Let us run with patience, &c. By this word patience, we are ever reminded of what the Apostle meant to be mainly regarded in faith, even that we are in spirit to seek the kingdom of God, which is invisible to the flesh, and exceeds all that our minds can comprehend; for they who are occupied in meditating on this kingdom can easily disregard all earthly things. He thus could not more effectually withdraw the Jews from their ceremonies, than by calling their attention to the real exercises of faith, by which they might learn that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, and far superior to the elements of the world.
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.
1 In surveying the men and women whose faith was exhibited so signally in pre-Christian ages, our author has said repeatedly that they were well attested by virtue of their faith; to them all, as to Abel, God himself bore witness. But now they in turn are called witnesses. A “cloud” of witnesses is a good classical locution for a “host” of witnesses. But in what sense are they “witnesses”? Not, probably, in the sense of spectators,8 watching their successors as they in their turn run the race for which they have entered; but rather in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith. It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement. They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God; they were, in a manner of speaking, witnesses to Christ before his incarnation, for they lived in the good of that promise which has been realized in him. “The divinely inspired prophets,” said Ignatius, “lived according to Jesus Christ. That is precisely why they were persecuted, being inspired by his grace, so as to convince the disobedient that there is one God, who has manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son …” (Magnesians 8:2).
This is one of the early examples of the beginning of the semantic change by which the ordinary Greek word for “witness” acquired its distinctive Christian sense of “martyr”—a change which we find so thoroughly established by the time we come to Origen’s Exhortation to Martyrdom (c. a.d. 235) that he uses the word, without feeling himself under any necessity to explain why he so uses it, of “one who of his own free choice chooses to die for the sake of religion” rather than save his life by renouncing it. Other New Testament occurrences of the word which could have encouraged this semantic change are found in Acts 22:20, where Paul in prayer speaks of “the blood of Stephen thy witness,” and in Rev. 2:13, where the glorified Christ, addressing the Pergamene church, mentions “Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you.” T. W. Manson, in an important article on this subject, points out that the association between faithful witness and martyrdom goes back well before New Testament days; he illustrates his point with a reference to Neh. 9:26, where the Levites, in their prayer of confession to God, recall how the people of Israel “killed thy prophets who had warned them in order to turn them back to thee.” And certainly the testimony and sufferings of the prophets play a prominent part in our author’s survey of men and women of faith toward the end of Heb. 11.
There they are, then, and with their record to encourage us let us in our turn cultivate endurance like theirs as we run “the race for which we are entered” (NEB).13 Even those who have greeted the promise to which Old Testament saints looked forward, who live in the age of fulfilment and have experienced “the mighty works of the coming age” (6:5), continue to need patience (10:36). Christ has appeared on earth, in fulfilment of the promise of God, and has done “away with sin by his own sacrifice” (9:26); but now he is no longer present on earth in visible form, for he is exalted above the heavens. His people therefore, while they wait for his second appearing to bring them final salvation (9:28), must still endure, like Moses, as seeing “the Invisible One” (11:27). True, they have greater incentive and fuller encouragement than any of their predecessors who lived before Christ came, but they too have their contest to engage in, their race to run. The description of the good life in terms of an athletic engagement is readily paralleled both within the New Testament and outside it.16 It may have suggested itself the more readily to our author’s mind at this point because of the athletic or agonistic terminology in which the sufferings of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes are repeatedly portrayed in 4 Maccabees—an Alexandrine treatise of which there are several echoes in the present context of our epistle. The martyrs contend in a contest18 in which the pagan king is their antagonist; and true religion20 wins the victory by their endurance; the universe and the whole race of mankind are the spectators,22 while Virtue occupies the president’s box. The prize with which the martyrs are crowned is eternal life.
So in the Christian contest the prize is assured to all who compete lawfully and run with patient endurance. “So run,” said Paul to the Corinthians, “that you may obtain” the prize (1 Cor. 9:24); and our author’s advice to his readers is to the same effect.
The athlete must discipline himself; he must divest himself of all superfluous weight,26 not only of heavy objects carried about the body but of excess bodily weight. There are many things which may be perfectly all right in their own way, but which hinder a competitor in the race of faith; they are “weights” which must be laid aside. It may well be that what is a hindrance to one entrant in this spiritual contest is not a hindrance to another; each must learn for himself what in his case is a weight or impediment. But there are other things which are not perfectly all right in their own way but are essentially wrong; there is “sin which so readily ensnares us.” Our author is not referring so much to some specific sin, but to sin itself, as something which will inevitably encumber the runner’s feet and trip him up before he has taken more than a step or two. This appears to be the sense of the common reading here, the adjective euperistatos. “Some have indeed fancifully rendered it ‘the sin which men admire,’ inasmuch as peristatos may convey the sense of being gaped at. But that supposition is utterly foreign to the context. The surest clue to the expression presents itself in the twofold meaning of peristasis and its cognate verb, which has been explicitly noticed both by Epictetus (ii.6) and Marcus Aurelius (ix.13). It can either indicate the circumstantia or surroundings of a person or event, or else be used in a pejorative acceptation of a state of beleaguerment, of exigencies and straits, in like fashion with thlipsis, ‘a squeeze,’ or the Latin angustiae. This latter sense dominates our euperistatos.” So writes E. K. Simpson, adding that a constricting environment “may work for good or ill.” “The difference in effect,” he says, “is akin to that of a girdle or a shackle respectively. The girdle braces its wearer, the shackle impedes him. ēuperistatos presents the latter spectacle by way of warning, the picture of besetting sin that has become a household word and a salutary admonition to the Christian athlete. The sin so prone to hamper or trammel would be our version,” he concludes.
The alternative reading euperispastos, attested by our oldest extant witness for the text of the epistle, would bear the sense “easily distracting” in this context. Anything that distracts an athlete from the contest in which he is competing will quickly put him out of the running.
1 The pastor has often urged his hearers to action because of the privileges they “have” in Christ (4:14–15; 6:18–19; 8:1; 10:19). Here he urges them forward because of the legacy they “have” from the witnesses of faith who have gone before. By initiating this sentence with “therefore” and with an emphatic “we ourselves,” he redoubles the force of the causal participle: “therefore, because we ourselves have.” The hearers know that they are intimately and inseparably joined to the faithful who have gone before. Nor will the pastor let them forget the magnitude of the testimony he has amassed in his “such a great cloud of witnesses.”4 Even the term “cloud” underscores the unanimity of their testimony. Nor can the hearers confine these witnesses to the dead past. They are even now “surrounding us.” The pastor would have his hearers feel that they can reach out and touch these heroes who lived by faith. It is these faithful from the past whose approval is worth courting despite the sneer of the unbelieving world.
The pastor has chosen the term “witnesses” because it enables him to affirm that the heroes of old are both “witnesses” to and of God’s contemporary people. The first is in accord with all that he has said in 11:1–40. He affirms that the faithful of old are “witnesses” to contemporary believers of the power and faithfulness of God. The validity of their testimony is assured by divine attestation and approval (11:2, 6, 16, 39). Their lives clearly and forcefully demonstrate the “reality” of God’s future promises and give “evidence” of his real but unseen power to deliver (11:1). Their witness assures the hearers that any amount of rejection by the unbelieving world is worth the divine approval. However, in accord with the athletic imagery now resumed from 10:36–39, they are also “witnesses” of God’s contemporary people. It is as if these heroes of old were in the stands watching the pastor’s hearers run this race “by faith.” They are “spectators,” indeed, “fans.” What an honor to have such “fans.” In fact, it is less than fully accurate to say that the pastor “resumes” the athletic imagery of 10:36–39. Instead, he incorporates the entire history of those who have lived “by faith” (11:1–40) into this great contest pursued by the people of God. Their pilgrimage has now become a race of endurance to the finish. As noted above when commenting on 10:36–39, the pastor’s hearers were accustomed to athletic contests and familiar with the metaphorical use of athletic imagery in moral discourse. We also noted that use of this metaphor was crucial to the pastor’s purpose. Suffering shame from the sinful world became a matter and source of great honor when it was seen as the endurance of an athlete in pursuit of victory. The pastor has transformed the pilgrimage lived “by faith” (11:1–40) into the race run “with endurance” in order to transform temporal shame into the means of eternal glory. The pastor’s hearers will overcome the shame of the unbelieving world lest they suffer shame before the eyes of these great heroes of faith cheering them on from the sideline. The pastor pours his whole heart and soul into this exhortation: “Let us run with endurance the race set before us.”
Of course, unlike a race, all of those who “by faith” endure the opposition of the unbelieving world will win. Every metaphor has limitations. There are many ways, however, in which this metaphor is most useful. Thus, like athletes who would be successful, the hearers must “lay aside every hindrance” or “encumbrance.” “Every encumbrance” suggests the removal of excess weight or clothes in preparation for the impending contest.11 Yet the expression is intentionally both general and comprehensive. The pastor wants his hearers to dispense with absolutely anything that will distract them from successfully running the race of faith. Indeed, if the runner refuses to put it aside, any such hindrance, though innocent in itself, becomes part of the “sin that clings so closely” and entangles the feet. In order to avoid misunderstanding, the above translation omits the definite article before “sin.” If one uses the article, it sounds as if one is referring to a particular “besetting” sin. However, the Greek article is used to describe sin in general, in totality, everything that is sin. “Sin,” as a potential reality, “clings so closely.”14 The pastor, is, however, particularly concerned with the “sin” of acquiescence to the discouragement that comes from unbelieving society’s hostility and/or the pursuit of the advantages the unbelieving world offers to those who conform. Such acts betray a distrust of God’s power and promises that may cause one to abandon the race and thus fall into apostasy. On the one hand, the saints of old surround modern believers as fans, urging them on; on the other, the allure of the world’s rewards and the hostility of unbelievers cling to the runners in order to retard their progress and turn them aside from the race.16
Getting rid of hindrances, though necessary, is preparatory to the pastor’s main concern: “Let us run with endurance the race set before us.” The hearers would have immediately recognized “the race set before us” as the usual way of describing such a contest.18 The pastor, however, has adopted this phrase for his own purposes: the life lived in obedience “by faith” has been determined and “set before us” by God himself. It has been established by Jesus the “Forerunner” (6:19–20), who alone has opened the way so that we can pursue this race to the end with success. This God-established race is a great privilege because it will take those who endure to the promised goal. “Endurance” is the important thing. It is an exhausting race. The pastor’s whole concern introduced in 10:36 is not just that they “run,” but that they run “with endurance” to the end. Such endurance is perseverance in a life of obedience through reliance upon God’s promises and power, and this despite stiff opposition.21 The pastor has substantiated this exhortation by offering the faithful of old as examples worthy of imitation and association and as heroes whose approval was worth winning. He fortifies this appeal in vv. 2–3 with his strongest argument: Jesus is both the source and greatest example of endurance.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 310–312). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.