58 – Hebrews 12:1-3: Running God’s Race

Hebrews 12:1-3

“Because we have such a vast number of witnesses surrounding us, let us strip ourselves of every encumbrance – any sin that would entangles us – and run with determination the race we have entered for God. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the One who perfects faith, who knowing the joy that would follow His sufferings, endured the cross, heedless of its shame, and has now taken His rightful place at God’s right hand. Compare your experiences with His, who willingly submitted to grievous opposition and bitter hostility, so that you do not become weary and faint-hearted.”

v. 1
These opening verses challenge us to apply the principles of faith set forth in chapter eleven. The saints in heaven are allegorized as a vast cloud of “witnesses” (marturou), from whence we derive our word “martyr”. But marturou can also refer to “those who have borne witness to the truth.” This heavenly throng includes patriarchs, prophets, judges, disciples, apostles, and missionaries. The grandstands are not filled with idle spectators: every one of them has run this race. They writer does not picture them as as actually observing us, but urges us to revere them and emulate their heroic faith.

In the era in which this epistle is written, the Olympian Games were already legendary. Comparing the Believer’s life to a footrace, the writer challenges his readers to persevere. The illustration of an athletic racetrack is common in Pauline literature as well. We are to run persistently in order to obtain, while keeping our bodies disciplined (I Cor. 9:24-27). Paul pressed on toward the goal in order to finish his course and win Christ (II Tim. 4:7 & Phil. 3:14). Believers must persist resolutely, allowing no one to hinder them (Gal.  5:7 & Phil. 2:16). David used the analogy of a strong man competing in a race with exuberance (Ps. 19:5).

However, joy is impossible if the runner is encumbered. Anything which weighs down a runner affects endurance. The concept of “weight” (onkos) is an unnecessary bulk or mass. The word is used concerning obesity, which hinders good health. It also refers to superfluous impediments which one is free to cast aside. We must relinquish everything that would impede our spiritual progress. When out of proportion, such weights might include habits and hobbies. Even legitimate things can become hindrances. For first-century Christian Jews, one such “weight” was the temptation to revert to legalistic Judaism.   

The idea of excess baggage is closely linked with transgressions. Whereas “weight” could refer to sins in general, the writer alludes to any pet sins. “Easily beset” (euperistaton) means “that which encompasses or surrounds.” Even primitive sportswear was designed to minimize weight and maximize freedom of movement. The author compares sin to a long garment that would entangle the feet and prevent a victorious finish. Besetting sins hinder one from reaching the goal.

The familiar phrase “let us” places the writer on par with his readers. He has previously encouraged them by stating:

~ “Let us strive to enter into rest” (4:11).
~ “Let us hold fast our confession” (4:14).
~ “Let us come boldly to the throne” (4:16).
~ “Let us go on to maturity” (6:1).
~ “Let us draw near with a true heart” (10:22).

Once again he joins them by saying, “Let us lay aside every weight…and let us run our race with endurance.” One of the greatest dangers for Believers is lack of spiritual progression. Unless one is moving proactively forward, the tendency is to backslide.

The Olympian Games called for rigorous self-discipline. The Christian life is a race demanding constant preparedness and progression. The word “patience” (hupomones) is the same word used earlier regarding our need for “endurance” and refers to the steady determination to continue (10:36). Although the life of a true Christian is demanding, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).

“Race” is agona and bespeaks strenuous effort. It is from this term we derive the word “agony.” The writer has in mind a long marathon rather than a brief sprint. Stamina is mandatory. The rules of this race are set forth in the Word of God. Though the hurdles we must jump are formidable, we are challenged to follow the course God has laid out for us.  These witnesses have all run the same race, followed the same track, and overcome the same obstacles.

v. 2
We are encouraged to run for Christ’s sake, but not simply because others have done so. Concentrating on the things of God allows us to run and not be weary (Isa. 40:31). Our relationship with Christ is our primary incentive to stay in the race. “Looking” (aphorontes) means to fix one’s gaze upon something – to the exclusion of everything else. Paul encourages us to forget what is behind us and press toward the goal of Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13). Distractions can cause a runner to stumble or fall. It is imperative to focus on Christ alone, for He is
our perfect example of perseverance (II Cor. 3:18).

“Author and Finisher” is Leader (archegos) and Completer (teleiotes). “Author” is also translated “Prince” in Acts 3:15. Christ is earlier referred to as “the Pioneer of our salvation” (2:10). He is not among the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, but is the Leader of all who live by faith. Because Christ is our Forerunner, all who follow Him resolutely will win the race (6:20). 

The writer points out the heroic character of Christ. He joyfully anticipated the inauguration of the plan of salvation. Because it was foremost in His mind, He willingly endured and overcame. When Jesus prayed, He mentioned the glory He enjoyed with the Father before the world existed (Jn. 17:5). Like Paul, we should contrast the sufferings of the present world with heaven (Rom. 8:18). As Christ anticipated future joy, so we must concentrate on upon the blessings that await us.

Christ has run and completed His race by His sacrifice on the cross. A brief overview of crucifixion will prove helpful:

The original concept of impalement came from nailing slain barnyard rodents on the side of a building in vengeful merriment. Bodies of executed persons were sometimes hung from the walls of a stockade to discourage disobedience and mock defeated enemies (I Sam. 31:8-10). The Romans used crucifixion to intimidate all who opposed the power of Rome. To instill fear, such executions were always public. It was the most degrading form of punishment known. The cross was a warning, a torture, a humiliation, and a deterrent. A crucified man was said “to be cursed”…..and Christ was cursed for us (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23 & Acts 5:30). This form of capital punishment was usually reserved for revolutionaries, spies, thieves, and those guilty of sedition. In the case of multiple crucifixions, the most prominent and central position was retained for the worst criminal (Mk. 15:27). The agonies of crucifixion were so horrible, even the cruel Roman soldiers offered a cup of alcohol and drugs to those they crucified. Because the victim was forced to press down upon the nail in his feet in order to draw a breath, many died from sheer exhaustion. Insects and birds began to consume the body while the victim was still alive. Death by asphyxiation was slow and victims often struggled convulsively for several days. To ensure death would follow, both legs were often broken by a forcible blow (Jn. 19:32). 

Although this hellish torture is hard to conceive today, the writer felt no need to elaborate. The ignominy and reproach of crucifixion were very familiar to his readers. Jesus “despised the shame” of the cross. “Despise” (kataphronesas) means “to disregard something as unimportant.” When weighed against what the cross would accomplish, He considered the shame of His sufferings not worthy of comparison.

The writer has already reminded his readers that Christ’s exaltation was a reward for His vicarious atonement. When He had purged our sins, He sat down on the right hand of God (1:3; 8:1 & 10:12). After He had suffered death, He was crowned with glory and honor (2:9). Christ promises overcomers will “sit with Me on My throne, even as I overcame and sit with My Father on His throne” (Rev.3:21). 

v. 3
We are asked to “consider” Christ. “Consider” (analogizomai) is used only here in the New Testament. It is from this term we derive the word “analyze.” The mathematical concept behind this means to carefully examine, compute, or estimate by comparison. Our trials are insignificant in contrast to His. Meditating upon His perfect record of endurance should inspire anyone tempted to give up. To ponder Christ’s trials, persecutions, and injustices forces us to remember the patience He exemplified.

“Contradiction” is antilogian and means “to speak against.” This refers to the verbal and physical abuse Christ submitted to at the hands of His enemies. It also suggests that opposing Him was against their own best interests. Throughout His three years of public ministry He was relentlessly derided, mocked, and insulted. Sinners constantly twisted His words and questioned His motives. He was branded as a glutton, a drunk, and accused of sedition. Despite tremendous persecution, He steadfastly set His face toward Jerusalem and what awaited Him there (Lk. 9:51). In the end, He was beaten, scourged, condemned, and nailed to a cross. Never once did He falter or retaliate, but patiently bore the horrors of Calvary to atone for our sins. 

“Weary” (kamete) means to be exhausted, discouraged, and ready to quit. The writer approaches his final warning against apostasy, challenging his readers to contrast the severe sufferings of Jesus with their current situation. When Jesus forewarned His disciples about their coming trials and tribulations, He was quick to add…“but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). 


Hebrews 12:1-3

1. To successfully run the Christian race, what two obstacles must first be removed? (12:1)
2. What did Paul strive to win?  (Philippians 3:8)

3. Like excess weight, what must Believers “cast off”? (Rom. 13:12)

4. The writer refers to Christ as the Author and Finisher of faith. What does John say about Him in Revelation 22:13?

5. Crucifixion was:
A. a warning
B. a humiliation
C. a deterrent
D. a torture
E. all of the above

6. Crucifixions were always:
A. performed by the Pharisees
B. reserved for the worst criminals
C. public
D. both B & C
E. none of the above

7. What will happen to those who suffer with Christ?  (II Timothy 2:12)

8. If we deny Christ, what will He do?  (II Timothy 2:12)

9. What will happen to those who overcome?  (Revelation 3:21)

10. Think of your pet sin, the one that is a constant temptation. What is the best possible solution?


Maxim of the Moment

You have to be careful about being too careful. - Beryl Pfizer