The Christian Race – Hebrews 12:1-3

Yesterday I had the privilege of talking to my brother D. from Myanmar(Burma). As we were driving home together, he told me about his life and his experience. This was a blessing as well as reminder about the evilness of this world (e.g. demonic forces) and the people who oppose the Christian faith. I do not want to tell you his story (that is up to him to do) but I do want to encourage my brothers and sisters around the world (some of whom are reading my blog) with God’s Word – so my prayer is that He will use this entry to help and strengthen the persecuted ones around the world!
The Argument of this Passage
After the author gave many examples of Old Testament saints who endured though “they did not receive what was promised,” he now exhorts the readers to follow those and even better, following Christ who endured the race from the humiliation on the cross to his heavenly exultation. Therefore, he argues, let us not grow weary in our Christian life.
The author gave us amply evidence of his literate excellence and he continues to do such here. He picks up the theme introduce in 10:36 (“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised”) and develops such in this chapter after he commented on 10:39 (“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls”) in chapter 11.
At the end of chapter 11 we read about the witnesses who “having gained approval” (marturēthentes), and that God has something better for “us” (hēmōn). The author links thus the preceding chapter by using the same terms in chapter 12:1 “witnesses” (marturōn) and “we ourselves” (kai hēmeis) (Lane, 403).
Chapter 12 can be divided the following way (though today we will focus on the first three verses):
          vv. 1-3:           The Christian Race
          vv. 4-11:         Discipline for Legitimate Children
          vv. 12-17:       Exhortation to Exercise the Faith
          vv. 18-24:       Earthly Mount Sinai and Heavenly Mount Zion
          vv. 25-29:       Exhortation to Listen to God’s Voice
1 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, 2 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. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
The theme of endurance was already introduced in 10:36 and is now elaborated in detail by the author. 
Thereforelooks back to the entire chapter 11 and the author exhorts his readers in light of such. Thus the saints of the OT (great a cloud of witnesses) are examples of endurance in faith (Ellingworth, 637) which is needed for the current circumstance of the readers. But how do we understand the term “a great cloud of witnesses”? Bruce (contra Ellingworth) argues that this term is not to be understood in the sense of spectators (though the word μάρτυς is capable of that meaning) “but rather in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith” (333; cf. Moffatt, 192-193; and BDAG “those witnesses whose faith is tried and true,” 619,1,b). This seems also to be more in line of pastoral concern. It is encouraging to see the saints of old who have persevered, but is it really that of an encouragement to know that they are watching you now? Maybe; but the witness to God’s faithfulness and the life lived by faith are the primary thought here.
So what are we supposed to do?  The answer to this question has four aspects: (1) lay aside every weight, and (2) sin which clings so closely, and (3) let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, and finally (4) looking to Jesus!
The author employs the picture of the athletics games – well known in this time of the Roman Empire – and these analogies to the Christian race. As the athlete would strip himself from any kind of superfluous weight (body weight and clothing – it was actually a Greek custom to compete in the nude; Hughes, 520) so are we to strip ourselves from every weight which hinders us in our Christian life. This term has some connection with (2) sin which clings so closely. Hughes sees sin as a clarification to weight (520). We do agree that sin is hindering us in our Christian life and slows us down, yet in our understanding of the text it seems better to see a little more of a disconnect between the two.
Weight is anything that slows us down and hinders us in our process in becoming like Christ, and yes as Hughes says, for this reason it becomes ‘sinful,’ but we see this more as being subjective. The weight itself might not be intrinsically sinful, but may become such to the believer. Yet (2) sin is more objective – it is sin to everybody and not to the individual alone.
The reason why we maintain that disjunction (which is not a major one) is more of a pastoral concern. There might be things in our lives which we have to get rid off, because they hinder us in our daily walk with the Lord, yet to others these things might not be of hindrance at all. So we are not to condemn those who commit an activity which is not sinful in itself.
 Now (3) endurance enters the scene again. We are to run with endurance. The Christian life is not a sprint, but a marathon (or even more). It is a lifelong struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (e.g. Gal. 5:17). Hughes (520-521) summarizes the significance of this exhortation,
One of the chief problems with the Hebrew Christians to whom this letter is addressed is that they have set out on the race but, after a good start (10:32-34), are now slackening in the will to persevere: their effort is decreasing (2:1), sin is holding them back (3:17-4:1), they need to recover they intensity of purpose (4:11), to shake of the sluggish mood into which they have fallen (6:11f.), to regain their confidence (10:35,39) and their competitive spirit (12:12). 
But all the OT saints, as precious as their lives and faith may have been, are nothing compared to (4) the One whom every believer has to fix his eyes on – Jesus. As Peter in the storm (Mt. 14:28-31), or Stephen before his execution (Acts 7:55f.) or Moses (11:27; if the context is seen to refer to Christ Jesus) who endured because he was “seeing him who is invisible”, we are to fix our eyes on him who is the founder and perfecter of our faith – the one who “has realized faith to the full, from start to finish” (Moffatt, 196). Ellingworth accordingly comments that “the presupposed teaching about Christ ‘bringing many sons to glory’ or to perfection (→ 2:10; 11:40) suggests the meaning ‘leader’ or ‘pioneer’” (640). Thus the term founder (archēgos) does not necessarily imply the beginner of our faith (as in 2:10) but the one who from the beginning to the end lived by total surrender, obedience, trust, and belief in his Father. “He is both the first to complete the road to salvation, and the one who makes our following him possible” (Loader 1978.207; quoted in Ellingworth, 640).
He did such for the joy that was set before him and endured the cross, despising the shame. This is an obvious rebuke and encouragement to the readers. Christ himself endured hardships unimaginable – an innocent man, despised and rejected, condemned to die on a cross (this execution by the cross was so cruel that by Roman law a Roman citizen was not to be executed this way). But now he is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (a theme we already saw in 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; taken from Psalm 110). This “outcome of Christ’s perseverance” for sure “provides strong encouragement for those who are suffering under persecution” (Guthrie, 985). Consider him thatis to think strongly to compare us with him. “We are to have the same perspective and to be encouraged by his endurance of opposition from sinful men not to grow weary and lose heart” (Peterson, in loc.).
I do not pretend to understand the situation of my brothers and sisters around the world, but what I do understand is that we are to “mourn with those who mourn” – and tears surpass our understanding!
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.    
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47B. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

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