Therefore, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, laying aside every weight, and sin which clings so easily, let us also run with endurance the race set before us, looking away to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured a cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. —Hebrews 12:1-2
The Christian life is a marathon race, as we see in this passage. And nobody wins a marathon by drifting. Nobody wins a marathon by being distracted. People win marathons by a glad determination to stay focused and dedicated. A marathon isn’t easy. If it were, it wouldn’t mean anything. People don’t give out trophies for sitting around. And God has set before us in our generation a race to run – to be a gospel-centered church planting more gospel-centered churches that themselves plant more gospel-centered churches, so that Jesus becomes non-ignorable here in the South. It isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be. But the prize is worth everything.
This letter was written to Christians in the first century who were weak and tired and discouraged. The author speaks of drooping hands and weak knees (12:12). These early believers were losing their grip on the things that matter, the things that make life thrilling. They were drifting from Jesus without even realizing it. They were wondering, Why keep this up? Why not bail? This passage answers that question: Why not bail, why not quit? This passage answers that question. Let’s think it through.
Therefore, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…
In chapter 11 the author walks us through the biblical Hall of Fame. We see Abraham and Sarah and Moses and others. How did their lives count for something? When we look back at them, what are we compelled to say? One thing. They lived “by faith,” as chapter 11 repeatedly says.
What does it mean to live by faith? That sounds like a cliché. What does it mean? It’s a lot more than believing the Bible and being a nice person. The author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). In other words, faith knows that God has so much more for us than this life right now. Is my life right now worth living? Yes. Why? Not because of what my life is right now but because of what my life will be forever. What makes any race worth running? The prize at the end. God has promised us unimaginable happiness forever. It’s real. It’s waiting for us. It’s not far away. Therefore, the true meaning of our lives is in what we don’t have now and we can’t see now. We feel enriched and privileged and drawn on to eternal things, so that we live with hands held open before God, not grasping. That is living by faith.
Our present happiness depends not on the present but on the future. God wants us to look away from the present out into his future promises. He is not asking us to sacrifice our happiness; he is connecting our happiness with things not yet seen. We don’t have to deserve them. The people in chapter 11 didn’t deserve them. But God does call us to believe in them. He has promised us a better country, a heavenly home (11:13-16), lasting pleasures (11:25), greater wealth (11:26). As we run toward that future with our eyes focused out there, we become prophetic here in our own generation. Our lives can make a statement worthy to be remembered.
The whole point of Hebrews chapter 11 is this – that race can be run. We’re surrounded by people, as it were, whose lives prove that this race we’re running is runnable. It’s as if the ones who have already finished their race, instead of going to sit down and relax, walk back and now line the track as we run by. And they’re cheering us on and saying, “We made it, and you can too. You’re doing just fine. He’s worth it. He’s faithful. He keeps his word. Don’t stop. Run well.” Every believer who has already crossed the finishing line is a human statement that you and I cannot say, “Right now in my life, God is asking too much of me. This is too hard.” We can never say that, because all these witnesses – not a few superhuman stand-outs here and there but a great cloud of weak people like us – God helped them to run well, all the way to the finish line. Think of the believers you knew personally, whose lives were not easy, but they ran well. Don’t you see what their lives are still saying? Every race is runnable. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and he is waiting for us at the end as our prize.
…laying aside every weight, and sin which clings so easily…
Today we think a lot about weight loss. Let’s not overlook the most important kind of weight loss. When runners get ready for a race, they strip off all unnecessary impediments. They’re not asking, “How can I hold on to as much possible and still run?” They’re asking, “How much can I get rid of, to run as well as I can?” And everything that doesn’t help them run as well as they can, they lay aside. Faith does not ask, “How much of my life can remained unchanged?” Faith asks, “How can I change, to run with greater freedom than ever before?” We know from The Lord of the Rings how important it is to throw away that precious thing at the center of our selfishness. There is something the Lord is calling every one of us to let go of. I don’t know what that means for you. I think I know what it means for me. And until we give it up to the Lord, life is a heavy burden to bear. We feel easily threatened. We feel we have something to cling to and defend, even from God. There’s no joy in that, no release. We need to let some things go. Have we thought through what it means to streamline and simplify our lives for eternity – in how we spend our time, in the TV we watch, in how we use our money, how we raise our kids? Faith gets us asking, “What allowable things in my life are just unhelpful? I want to get rid of everything that isn’t making me compelling to my generation.” Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” That is living by faith, faith is lean and focused.
The “weights,” then, are innocent things that just don’t help. But we also sin. And sin drags us down. Sin says to us, “I’ll turbo-charge your experience.” But it’s a lie. There is no sin you and I have ever committed that made our lives richer and happier and freer. The truth is, sin complicates everything. It clings so easily, and it’s hard to untangle. But the prize Jesus promises is real and so great, no weight or sin is worth hanging on to. We can let go of every sin and weight and lose nothing and gain velocity. Do you feel you’re gaining momentum in following Jesus? If not, what do you need to get rid of so that life becomes an adventure again?
…let us also run with endurance the race set before us…
These words are the centerpiece of the passage. Everything else in these verses hangs on “Let us also run.” That’s the message God wants us to hear. Others have run. Now it’s our turn. Let us also run. Let us also run – not drift, not dawdle, not wander, not hesitate. Right now is our unrepeatable moment to stretch forward with the faith we so admire in others and find for ourselves in our lives, as they did in theirs, that God’s promises outperform everything forever.
We don’t need to be superhuman. We just need to set our hearts on things above. That’s why the word “endurance” is here. All the people in chapter 11 were sinners. That did not disqualify them, because Jesus died for sinners. The only disqualifier is quitting the race set out for us because our hearts are set on lesser things that trip us up, bog us down. They are why we feel heavy. It isn’t Jesus’ fault. The positive energy we need comes from saying Yes to him, whatever the cost, moment by moment.
…looking away to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…
The most accurate translation is not “Looking to Jesus” but “Looking away to Jesus.” In other words, looking away from everything that makes us feel defeated and fixing our eyes somewhere else. We can only focus on one thing at a time. And if we’ll fix our eyes on Jesus, we will go the distance. Every other focus is energy-depleting. But Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith. This is why Hebrews 12:1-2 is not a pep talk. It’s not appealing to our own strength. It’s a call to refocus on Jesus, who began our faith and who will complete our faith. We’ve all failed and stumbled many times, and we’ll keep stumbling along the way. So we don’t have to quit. We’re not running this race on our own. Even our faith comes from beyond ourselves, from Christ. If you are in him, you’re a living miracle. Jesus performed a miracle to get you going, and he is performing more miracles to sustain you. He is committed to you. Don’t focus on your failures. Look away to Jesus and take your next step, and then your next.
…who for the joy set before him endured a cross, despising the shame…
What kept Jesus going when it wasn’t easy for him” What was his source of motivation? “The joy set before him.” When he was whipped, when the nails were pounded into his hands, when the crown of thorns was driven into his scalp, he was thinking about something. He stayed focused. He kept before his mind’s eye the joy set before him, and it made him unstoppable as he ran his race all the way to the end.
Jesus had to live by faith too. His divine nature didn’t give his human nature a free ride. He ran his race the same way we do – by looking beyond the pain of the moment into the joy of the future. What did he see out there in his future? He saw us, perfected with him in eternity. And for him, that was no meager joy. It was so happy, he endured even a cross and blew off the disgrace as so worth us. We could not be more loved.
What are we learning? There is a joy set before us too. It makes a difference. Have you ever thought, “I could just get in the car and drive out onto the interstate and keep going. I have a credit card”? Okay, when our thoughts go there, what does the gospel say to us in all our need? The gospel does not say, “Don’t do that. What would everybody think?” The gospel does not say, “Don’t do that. You’ll be such a loser.” The gospel says, “Jesus understands what you’re feeling. He’s been there himself. And he knows the way to the joy and release you long for. It’s the track you’re running right now. Don’t quit. At the end of your race is a joy big enough to make you happy forever. A joy promised by Almighty God must be big enough to live for now. And there is no other joy.”
…and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God…
All the forces of evil and all our sins came down on Jesus at the cross. But God raised him up from it all and seated him on high. And he is there now, eternally successful as our Savior. His sufferings are over; his joy is endless. And he is both our pattern to follow and our friend to help us follow – the founder and perfecter of our faith. God has provided everything for us, all the way. He is the one who set your race before you. You don’t have to wonder where it is. You’re in it right now.
Jesus himself is all we need to go the distance, as so many others have proven. Let’s throw off everything that slows us down. Let’s run, let’s run to win, let’s run together.