RPM, Volume 10, Number 52, December 21 to December 27 2008

Hebrews 12:1-4

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

About a hundred years ago, when I was in high school, I ran cross country. I was not the best runner on our team. I was not the worst runner on our team. I was somewhere in the middle. For me, cross country running was always a love/hate relationship - but mostly hate. The thing I loved about it was just the fact that as a result of the grueling hours of practice your body was in terrific shape. I don't know how other teams did it - but our typical practice involved running at least 10 miles - as well as doing other things: running up and down stadium steps, running sprints, weight lifting, etc. After doing that day in and day out for a number of months, you developed this seemingly un-ending reservoir of energy that spilled over into everything you did.

It was terrific. I do not think I've ever felt better in my whole life.

The thing I did not love about it was the relentless mental battle that went on every time I ran. At the beginning of the run it wasn't bad, but as time went by, and as the miles passed, every fiber in my being began whispering and then later on, shouting, telling me to just stop, to quit this madness, to give up. Nowhere was this more prevalent than when we were running in an actual race.

Usually our races were anywhere from 3 to 5 miles, on varying terrain, and would involve dozens of teams from schools all over our district. Each team would arrive with about 10 runners or so, all dressed out in their school's colors. After some preliminaries and warm-ups we would all line up for the start, the gun would fire, and we would be off running.

As the race went on, people got sorted out, according to their ability and would begin to spread out across the course in a broken line from the first runner to the last, with little clusters of runners here and there. As you ran along, you would pass some people, and be passed by others. Every so often, you would come across someone who had slowed to a jog, or a walk, and some who had just collapsed on the course.

Most of the race was run in obscurity, following some marked out course through some state park, with only the occasional spectator along the way. But as you got to about the middle of the course, or just past it, the number of people along the sides of the course began to increase. That was all fine and, sometimes, encouraging.

However, as you got near the end of the race, the size of the crowd increased much more dramatically. Not only did the size of the crowd change, the nature of the crowd began to change as well. Whereas, before, the crowd was composed of moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends, etc., as you neared the finish line the crowd included more and more of the runners from the race - runners that had finished ahead of you and whose brightly colored shirts now stood out in the crowd.

While for some that might have been discouraging, for me, at that point in the race at least, the mental game had become desperate and all I was thinking about was just surviving. Whether I finished first was immaterial to me. All I could think about was just finishing without my heart exploding.

So for me, in that state of mind, the growing numbers of racers in their colored shirts was not discouraging but encouraging and told me at least two things: 1) the end was near and 2) I might just make it after all.

In the passage before us today, the writer of Hebrews uses the image of the footrace to instruct and encourage his readers to continue on in their pursuit of Christ. We will be exploring the writer's use of that imagery a bit more in our time this morning, but before we do that, let's pray together....

As we continue to give our attention to the Book of Hebrews, let me invite you to turn to chapter 12, beginning at verse 1, if you haven't already done so.

Now, as those of you who have spent some time in this book will know, throughout this letter the writer has been working hard to encourage his readers who have had a pretty difficult time of it because of their faith. In fact, the opposition has been so fierce that it has driven some of them to turn away from their professed faith in Jesus and to embrace again their Jewish roots - or at least a modified version of it - with tragic results.

So, in order to try and prevent any more people from making this same, terrible error - and perhaps to call back some who had already drifted far away, the writer of Hebrews wrote the letter we now have in our hands. And if you take a bird's-eye view of this letter you will see this agenda demonstrated through two basic emphases that pop up everywhere, namely: 1) arguments showing how Jesus was superior TO and the fulfillment OF everything that the Old Testament system anticipated and 2) warnings about the dangers of never acknowledging this truth or worse: of once professing these truths, and then knowingly and deliberately turning one's back on them.

Those two main agenda items have dominated the first 10 and a half chapters of this letter. The last part of the letter, where we find ourselves at the moment, is, however, slightly different and is concerned with not only explaining but also with applying the theology of the first 10 and a half chapters and bringing it to bear on the particular situation of his readers in practical ways.

This "applicational shift" - if I can call it that, and as I mentioned previously - seems to me to start around verse 19 of chapter 10, with the writer's very helpful words about the implications of what he is saying for things such as how we approach God, or how we view and practice our fellowship with one another, or with how we endure hardships, etc.

The writer then continues in this same sort of vein in chapter 11 where we see some of the most well-known figures from the Old Testament and how they all, in their own way, exercised the same persevering, not-dependent-upon-sight sort of faith that the writer of Hebrews is now encouraging his readers to have and imitate.

All of which brings us to the verses before us now, in chapter 12 where the writer, by means of the imagery of the footrace, will build on what he has already said to offer even more encouragements to his readers than he already has. As we work through the first 4 verses of this chapter, we will start out by looking at: (1) encouragement the writer gives to both get his readers going and also keep his readers going in the race, (2) hindrances that will tend to get in the way and impede a person's progress in the race, and (3) considerations for God's people to keep in mind as they think about finishing the race. One thing, two things, three things. That's where we're heading. With that as an introduction, let us listen now to the passage: Hebrews 12:1-4 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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. The first thing I want to draw your attention to here is the encouragement that the writer of Hebrews is offering in order to spur his readers on and to keep them going and to keep them keeping on, in their obedient pursuit of Christ.

Certainly, if we had been reading through this letter together over a number of months we would, by now, have seen all sorts of things offered in this letter as encouragements for keeping going.

Due to our time constraints, I will not take the time to rehearse these for you right now. But what I will say is that those encouragements have clustered around two different poles, and around things which we have already highlighted: Positively, they have clustered around the person and work of Jesus and what he has accomplished and fulfilled in his role as God's great, and final high priest. Negatively, they have clustered around some of these strong warnings we have already mentioned - warnings to not go astray from the faith.

The encouragement we see here at the beginning of chapter 12 is of the more positive sort with the slight difference that the thing that is highlighted here, at least initially, is not Jesus Christ per se but, instead, his people, the people of God. All these great "heroes" of the faith that the writer has just paraded before his readers in chapter 11. These are the people who now make up what the writer refers to in verse 1 as the "cloud of witnesses" that surround God's people.

Like the story I began with this morning - the words here call to mind an athletic image - a footrace which, it should be noted, would most likely have been very familiar to the original recipients of this letter with the Olympic, Isthmian, Pythian, and other such games having their origins in that part of the world. And so, in keeping with the image suggested, what is in view in these verses, it seems to me, is that moment near the end of a long race - like the marathon, for example - where the runner is finishing the race and perhaps even, has just re-entered the stadium for the final laps. And as he enters the stadium, he notices the crowds all around him.

But, unlike the crowds that might have attended the Olympic games in those days, the crowds described here are different. This crowd is not like the one once described by the person who, when trying to explain American football to a foreigner, said that it was "80,000 people badly in need of exercise, watching 22 people badly in need of rest."

That is not the sort of crowd described in these verses. It is not a crowd of "spectators," so to speak. This is a crowd of athletes. This is a crowd of witnesses - a crowd of people whose lives are a testimony to faithful, persevering obedience - the people just described in chapter 11. This is like an athlete running into a stadium where the stands are filled, not with fans, but with former Olympians - Gold, silver and bronze medalists - champions. This is like playing football in a stadium filled to the brim with Brownlow Medallists.

That is what this "cloud of witnesses" is composed of. That is the scene being set by the language here. And when you think about it that way it leads you to think about the significance of these words in a slightly different fashion than has perhaps typically been the case. Because the typical view of these verses is that the writer of Hebrews is trying to encourage his readers by reminding them that they are not running this race in obscurity but that all around them are countless numbers of people who have gone before and who are now, on their feet, wildly cheering and urging you on to keep going to the goal line.

I don't know, maybe.....perhaps.....there is some element of that here. Maybe. However, whatever help that might seem to be, what seems to fit more with the context of this letter is this: the encouragement the writer wants for his readers is the affirmation that comes from what they see, and not from the fact that they are being seen.

In other words, the writer is not trying to encourage his readers by telling them that they are now center stage and are themselves the subject of the applause and adulation of heaven but rather, he is trying to encourage them by recalling for them all these men and women who have gone before, and have finished the race running well - the very same race they are now running in themselves. The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to be spurred on by the many and varied examples of God's people who have gone before, who have persevered to the end, and who are now lining the racecourse all around to spur the rest of God's people on by the testimony of their lives.

So, the idea here is not so much that these witnesses notice us, but that we notice them, and we are encouraged that the end is near, and that this race can be finished. We can be further encouraged by the knowledge that one of the reasons why they are there urging us on is because, while they have finished their part in the race, they still await the conclusion, the closing ceremonies. This is because, as the writer of Hebrews has just shown in chapter 11, verse 40, it is only together, with us, that they will be made perfect. All these heroes of the faith are urging us on because the fullness of what God has for them will not be fully realized until every last one of us crosses the finish line.

That is the first thing I want you to notice: the sign that this cloud of witnesses is and the encouragement that they provide as we look to them and are spurred on by the testimony of their lives and by the fact that they finished the race in circumstances that are at least similar and which, in most cases were more severe than any we have ever known, or ever will know.

The second thing I want you to notice here are the two (2) hindrances that get in the way and impede our progress in this race into which God has placed us,

Hebrews 12:1 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.
In one of the funnier moments of one of his earlier movies, Steve Martin in The Jerk plays the part of a displaced person who, after many years, discovers that the family he grew up in is not his real family. Upon discovering that fact, Martin's character - "Navin" - determines that he will strike out on his own in order to find his fortune and perhaps discover who he really is in the process. Well, he does precisely that when he stumbles across an invention that at first brings him great riches but which, later on, leads to his ruin. Throw in a romantic interest along the way, and that is the main plot of the movie.

The movie itself has its moments, but for me perhaps one of the best is the scene where "Navin" decides that he is going to walk away from everything and start his life over and, in the process, defiantly announces that he doesn't need anyone else or anything else.

But no sooner does he make this announcement when it occurs to him that there IS something he wants to take with him. So, he grabs something like a stool or a chair and then proceeds to announce - again - that he is leaving, and that he doesn't need anyone or anything else - except this stool he has picked up.

But once again, before he can finish, he remembers something else that he wants to bring with him - a lamp, I believe. So, he gives the speech again, declaring that he doesn't need anyone or anything else - except this stool and this lamp he has picked up - and then he remembers something else he wants to bring. So, the process continues until - at the end - there is this ridiculous scene with Martin trudging slowly down the road, half of his clothes falling off of him, precariously trying to hang on to this random collection of chairs, and lamps and paddle balls and a dozen other things. It truly is a ridiculous sight.

Now it occurs to me that there must be some similarities between that image, and the one that God must see when he looks upon you and me. Don't you think? I mean, there we are, in the race, to be sure, but our arms are bursting as we shuffle along, clinging precariously to all sorts of things that we imagine we must have in order to survive, so weighed down that we can barely walk, much less run. Surely, we must present a picture that is at least as ridiculous as the one in the movie.

This is the sort of thing that, I believe, the writer of Hebrews is getting at in verse 1 when he calls his readers to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is before us..." The "weight" he mentions, and which interferes with our running, is set apart in order to be distinguished from sin - which also hinders our running.

As such, it seems to me that the sorts of things he has in mind here when he talks about weight are things which - in and of themselves - are not "bad" or sinful. They are in all likelihood legitimate things, even good things which, nevertheless, have been given an inordinate place of prominence or priority in a person's life - one which trumps the things of God, and which consistently gets in the way of one's whole-hearted pursuit of Christ.

The weight or encumbrance in view here might be something tangible. Or, it might be something intangible. Or, perhaps a little of both. It might, for instance, be related to something material or financial. In chapter 10, verse 34, the writer talked about how some of his readers had "joyfully endured the plundering of their property" referring most likely to the loss of houses and land. In such a context it is not hard to imagine that for every Christian who was willing to endure such a loss, there were several others who were not so joyful, and not so willing to endure this particular hardship and who, as a result, ended up compromising their faith in some way, in order to hang on to their possessions. If such a thing did indeed happen then, for believers in that context and that particular situation, their material things would have become an encumbrance, a weight, that was interfering with their ability to whole-heartedly run the race before them.

The same sort of thing might be true for you and me. There might be some material or financial reality that we are clinging fiercely to, and which is getting in the way of our running.

There are other kinds of weights or encumbrances out there. As one commentator has pointed out, sometimes the thing that is weighing us down is social in nature - a desire to belong and move in certain circles, to be accepted, and to avoid the ever present danger of the raised eyebrow. And there may be other sorts of "weights" as well.

But the bottom line is, we are in just as much danger of being weighed down and hindered in our running as the original recipients of this letter were. The nature of that hindrance will vary from one believer to the next. What is a difficulty for one believer might not be a hindrance at all for another. But whatever the case, the call of the writer of Hebrews, for his original readers and for us, is to lay aside every weight, to hold on to less and less - not more and more - in order that we might run, and run well.

Well, in addition to talking about "laying aside every weight" the writer of Hebrews also urges his readers to also lay aside every sin which clings so closely. The image brought to mind by the phrase "which clings so closely" - says one writer - is that of a person dressed in a long robe and trying to run hard in a race, only to find herself getting all tangled up and tripped up by these garments that cling to her and that, in the end, disqualify her from any legitimate pursuit.

That, among many other things that might be said, is one of the consequences of our sin. It renders us ineffective, it tangles us up, it impedes our progress, it strangles us, it suffocates us, and, in the end, can knock us right out of the race. Which is why the writer of Hebrews tells his readers to lay it aside - because unless and until we are serious about letting these things go - both our weight and our sin - the degree to which we are unwilling to do that is the degree with which we will be seriously hindered in our ability to run the race before us, as we should - with endurance, with joy, and without becoming weary and faint of heart.

The third thing I want you to see is not only the encouragement that the saints of old are for keeping going, and the twin hindrances of "weight" and sin that get in the way OF our going, but I also want to give you three things to keep in mind as you are going, as outlined in this text. And, since we have very little time left, I offer these more as "parting shots" than I do as a full-on exposition of these things.

The first thing to keep in mind, as you are going, is this: The race you are to run is the one that is before YOU. You might wish that your course were different. You might look around and see others running a different path than your own. You might wish your path was a better one. But, at the end of the day, the path you are on is the course you have been given to run.

As we saw in our last study of chapter 11, the commitment to walk by faith, and not by sight, is no guarantee of any particular outcome in this life. For some of God's people that commitment saw them experiencing times of great victory and accomplishment. For others of God's people their commitment to the faithful pursuit of God took them on a very dark road, with terrible hardships all along the way.

So the writer of Hebrews instructs his readers to run with endurance the race that is set before them - whatever that might mean. So for them, and now for us, the thing you need to keep in mind is this: This is the path you are on, not some other. So, get over it. Deal with it. Take your eyes off yourself, and fix them on your Savior - a point we'll come back to.

The second thing to keep in mind as you are going is this: This race is all about endurance. It is not a sprint, it's a marathon. It is about running, and continuing to run, even when everything within you says to give up. It IS about staying on course and finishing. But it's NOT a competition. You aren't trying to cross the finish line first. You are not trying to beat some person or team. You are simply trying to finish. The goal is to reach the goal, without stopping, without veering from the path, without turning around, without abandoning this race in order to pursue some other one.

The past three years have been very difficult for me — in a lot of ways — perhaps some of the most difficult of my entire life. And one of the things that has contributed greatly to the difficulty of it has been the fact that I have seen a number of very close friends of mine — colleagues in ministry — get tangled up in various sins, and make an absolute mess of their lives, the lives of their family members, and of their congregation.

It has been both heart-breaking to watch, and at the same time, terrifying, because I have no illusions that my heart is any less wicked then theirs.

But that reality has been the cause of a great deal of reflection for me, and a great deal of humility. When I first entered the ministry, I had lots of illusions about the great things I was going to do for God. But the older I get, the more my prayer and hope is that I can just get to the finish line, without bringing too much slander upon the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, of course, that is perhaps an overstatement, and perhaps a little negative. Of course, I still do hope that the Lord will condescend to doing something useful through me. But can anybody here relate to that sort of sentiment? Sometimes just getting to the finish line at all seems like it would be a huge accomplishment….

Which leads us then to the final consideration: The only way you will ever finish this race is by continually looking to Jesus. And notice how the writer of Hebrews, in providing this encouragement, also, in a series of short, pithy phrases, provides us with a number of motivations for doing so:

...because Jesus is the founder of our faith. In other words, He is the source of our faith. He is the object of our faith and the reason we have any faith at all.

...because Jesus is not only the founder of our faith, he is the perfecter of our faith, the finisher, the completer. And the idea here is very much along the same lines as that of Philippians 1:6 when it says, "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion..." So taking these first two ideas together, we see that Jesus is involved in both the beginning and the end of our faith. He is the guarantor of our faithfulness.

...another reason we are to look to Jesus is because he endured the pain of the cross, on our behalf- a pain which, by itself, was awful enough but which for Jesus was compounded by two realities: because he was an innocent man and because on the cross he endured not only the physical torture of a cruel death, but also the fullness of God's wrath against the sin of the world

...another reason we are to look to Jesus is because he suffered not only the pain of the cross but also the shame of the cross. To die by crucifixion, in those days, was considered to be so shameful, so despicable, that it was a point of Roman law that no Roman citizen could ever be put to death in that way. But this is the very death that Jesus endured - as well as the shameful, humiliating treatment that led up to it.

...still another reason we are to look to Jesus is because he is the one who is now seated at the right hand of God. Not only does this indicate that he has gone from the point of greatest shame to the position of highest honor, but it also means that he is the high priest who has completed his work on our behalf and, because of that, can now sit - even in the presence of God

...yet another reason we are to look to Jesus is because he is the one who endured great hatred and hostility - and that from the very people he came to save. He was rejected by the very people that ought to have been praising his name, falling on their knees in thankfulness and gratitude. In short, he is the one who suffered the greatest injustice that has ever been endured by anyone.

So, the author of Hebrews encourages his readers to keep looking to Jesus - and then gives them ample reasons for doing so. But these are not merely reasons for looking to Jesus but are, much more profoundly, reasons for loving Jesus.

This, it seems to me, is the sort of motivation that the writer of Hebrews wants to evoke in his readers. He wants them - and us - to faithfully keep looking to Jesus - not so much as a matter of obligation but as a matter of obsession.

As we reflect on who Jesus is, as we consider this one who endured the cross, who endured the hostility of sinners, who resisted the temptation to walk away, even at the cost of his own shed blood - which you and I have never done - as we consider this one who has done all that, and endured all of that on our behalf - the consequence is that we do and we will keep looking to Jesus - not because we must, but because we cannot help ourselves - because we love him. Because of all these things that the writer of Hebrews has been telling us about him, revealing him as the matchless, priceless, prophet and priest, Savior and Lord, that he truly is.

So in the end the writer of Hebrews, with these verses, is providing his readers with not only examples of those who faithfully persevered, and not only verbal encouragements for them to do the same, but he is also reminding them - and us - of the means by which their faithful perseverance will be finally and fully brought about: by Jesus, who is the perfecter of their and our faith, and through their/our continually looking to Jesus, compelled and impelled by His love, which begets our own love.

So, let me encourage you during this time - this retreat - where you have come to re-charge your batteries and, hopefully, find some refreshment - let me encourage you to re-set, and re-fix, your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith, to lay aside every weight and sin which slows you down, and to run with endurance the race that is set before you - continually looking to Jesus - not merely because he is at the finish line, but because he IS the finish line.

Because at the end of this race, you will not only be with him, you will be like him.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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