By PAUL J. SCHARF, M.Div.
Editor in Chief
(Read Part 1)
We conclude our spiritual preparations for Memorial Day by turning to Hebrews 12:1-3:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
These words speak of running a race with all of one’s might. Theodore Roosevelt captured the essence of that aspect of this passage in his famous quotation:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
In the modern vernacular, both Roosevelt and the author of Hebrews are calling us to leave everything on the field… or in this case on the race track. The idea of picturing the Christian life as a race is not unique to this passage. The Apostle Paul writes similarly in 2 Timothy 4:7:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Paul also speaks this way in the following texts: 1 Corinthians 9:24, 26; Galatians 2:2; and Philippians 2:16.
Entering the Race
We commonly hear that Hebrews 12:1-3 is set in an ancient Roman stadium, with all of the heroes of Hebrews 11 cheering us on from the stands. More than likely, this is not the picture that the author actually intends to paint. The heroes of faith are our witnesses—not because they are watching us, but because their lives bear testimony to us that the Christian race can be run and won.
Chapter 11 had given us many examples of those who lived by faith. They were given to inspire and challenge us to live lives of faith as well. This opening section of chapter 12 calls the believer to give everything that he or she has to the race in the light of what we have learned.
How do we prepare to engage in this race?
First, we must lay aside every weight, then we must likewise discard the sin which so easily ensnares us.
The author of Hebrews is calling his audience—Jewish people who were tempted to turn away from the gospel and return to Judaism—to overcome the bondage of the past. They could not succeed at running the Christian race as long as they were contemplating turning back from Christ, the fulfillment of all Old Testament promises and prophecies, and devoting themselves strictly to Judaism once again.
We must always learn from the past, but we must never attempt to live in the past. As Paul explains in his classic statement in Philippians 3:13-14:
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
If the heroes of Hebrews 11 could speak to us today, they would encourage us to go forward in faith just as they did in their lives—sometimes in the most unique and unusual ways. They would not want us to try to emulate them to the point of recreating their circumstances.
Getting on the race track and preparing to win also requires us to lay aside the baggage of the present. Determine that nothing will prevent you from setting out to run and win the race!
The sin which the author here mentions as being a great liability to the runner is likely the great sin of the book of Hebrews, which is unbelief. When followed to its logical end, its message would be that there is no sense in even attempting to run the race, since you cannot win it anyway.
Running the Race
We know that God would have us to give our all in attempting to run this race, even though it is no easy task. The word for race is one from which we get our word agony. This is a grueling contest that will demand everything that we can give. It requires endurance (forms of which are found in every one of the verses in our text; cf. Heb. 10:36).
The key to running with proper form is to run by looking unto Jesus. He is the one who has given us our faith, and He is the one who can bring our faith to its perfect completion.
By this point in our preparations we have done all that we need to do about looking backward. We did this in chapter 11, where we gained our motivation for the race.
We also dare not focus on others’ attempts at running the race (cf. 2 Cor. 10:12). Running victoriously requires that you “make straight paths for your feet” (Heb. 12:13).
Instead, we must follow the writer’s guidance:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb. 12:3, ESV).
Finishing the Race
Giving your heartfelt effort to complete the Christian race according to the rules is the only way to earn eternal reward (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8). When you stand before the judgment seat of Christ to receive that reward, the fact that you have run your race to win will be all that mattered.
Is there something that is holding you back from fully serving Jesus Christ and running the spiritual race to win? Is there something that you value more than the opportunity to expend all your energies for the great purposes that He has set before us?
When you watch an athletic contest on television—be it a football, basketball, baseball or hockey game, or an Olympic race—you will always notice two different sets of people: those who are participating in the contest and those who are watching from the stands. Have you actually entered the Christian race? Do you know Christ as your Savior? Are you seeking to serve Him “with your might” (Eccl. 9:10)?
I pray that this Memorial Day will offer you a new opportunity to look back and gain motivation for the race of faith that lies ahead.
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 <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7-it-is-not-the-critic-who-counts-not-the-man>; Internet; accessed 26 May 2016.
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