The Expository Files


 Encouragement in Running the Race

Hebrews 12:1-11

     I have never been involved much in sports. My brother played little league baseball and I practiced with him a little but was never on a team myself. The only football, basketball, and soccer that I ever played were in high school physical education classes. However, I did run track in high school and college. Imagine that you are a runner at Olympic games. Your coach is on sidelines to watch you. The stands are full of friends and relatives cheering you on. You have trained, practiced, and are now ready to run the race.  The Bible uses this picture to illustrate life of Christian.

     “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” (Hebrews 12:1). Training for and running races are not easy. They are hard work. There is a great deal of effort in building up one’s strength in preparation, and the actual race is draining.   It is so easy to become discouraged and quit. The life of a Christian is also like that, with lots of hardships and difficulties along the way. It is also easy to become discouraged and quit. But Hebrews 12:1-11 offer us encouragement in running the race.
The great cloud of witnesses
     One source of encouragement is the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in verse 1. Who are these witnesses? In a regular race, these would be the spectators in stands, but in the race of Hebrews, it refers to a special group which includes the great heroes of faith in chapter 11. For example, there is Abel (Heb. 11.4). He was tempted to follow older brother's example and offer something besides what God said, but he offered by faith and even though lost life as result, he still speaks to us today. Then there is Enoch (Heb. 11.5). He was tempted to be like the wicked people of his day, but he chose to walk with God and was translated so that he did not see death.

     Also, there is Noah (Heb. 11.7). He preached 120 years while building ark and saved only family. No one else listened, and many maybe even made fun of him. Can you imagine churches supporting a preacher for twenty years, let alone 120 years, with no “visible results”? However, he saved his household, and God seemed pleased with that. In addition, there is Abraham (Heb. 11.8). He was told to go to a distant land, and he was not a young man. The older I get, the harder it is to pick up stakes and move. Where was he to go? Basically God said, “I shall tell you when you get there.” Yet, there was no arguing, just an attitude of "OK, Lord, if that's what you say," and he was called friend of God.

     Moreover, there were Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses (Heb. 11.24-27). Moses could have had treasures and pleasures of Egypt, but he chose to give it all up to serve God and suffer in wilderness; yet with Abraham and David considered greatest heroes of the Old Testament. And there were others (Heb. 11.32-34). These are the people in the stands cheering us on

"His banner over us is love, Our sword the word of God.
We tread the road the saints above, With shouts of triumph trod.
By faith, they, like a whirlwind's breath, Swept on o'er every field.
The faith by which THEY conquered death Is still OUR shining shield."

They have gone on before us, already lived their lives, suffered for their faith, and remained faithful, and now they want to encourage us. They are telling us that it will not be easy, but if they could do it, we can do it too. Yes, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses."
Our Savior
     Another source of encouragement is our Savior. “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” (Heb. 12:2-3).

     Jesus is like our coach. Yes, He was and is the divine Son of God, but He did not come to earth as a super human being who walked a few feet above the ground on a cloud, or lived as a king in a palace with special privileges, but He came as one of us, “taking the form of a bond servant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). In fact, the writer of Hebrews has already pointed this out to emphasize that Jesus lived on this earth and suffered as we do. “Inasmuch then the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same….for in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted (Heb. 2.14-18).

     For this reason, He is qualified to be a “great High Priest who has passed through the heavens;” not “a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” but one who “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin,” so that we may “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4.14-16). Thus, we need to consider what Jesus endured lest we become weary and discouraged. But we also need to consider the example that He left us in the way He conducted His life (1 Pet. 2.21-23). So Jesus wants to encourage us in running the race, not only by offering us help as a faithful and merciful High Priest, but also by leaving us an example to show us how we can victorious; therefore, we need to be "looking unto Jesus..."
The Scriptures
     Still another source of encouragement is the scriptures. “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:4-6).

     In seeking to encourage readers, the inspired writer quotes from the Scripture (Prov. 3.11-12). Jesus often used the Scriptures. Remember how He encouraged Himself in temptation by constantly appealing to what “is written” and drawing strength from it to resist the devil. And He cited Scripture to encourage others. After His resurrection, He met with His disciples. “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Lk. 24.44-45).

     Of course, the Scriptures which Jesus and even the New Testament writers had for encouragement were the Old Testament Scriptures, and while they are not God's law for us today, we can still find encouragement from them because “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The accounts of all that great cloud of witnesses mentioned earlier are found in the Old Testament Scriptures. But in addition, we have the New Testament scriptures in which God reveals His will for us today, knowing that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.16-17). “Every good work” includes running the race set before us. The Hebrew writer sought to encourage His readers in running the race by pointing them to the Scriptures, and we can find encouragement to run our race from the Scriptures as well.
God’s chastening
     One other source of encouragement mentioned by the Hebrew writer is God's chastening. Having quoted from the Scriptures about God’s chastening, he goes on to say, “If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?...Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:7-11).

     There is a lot about God's chastening that I do not pretend to understand, but one thing I know. The Hebrew writer says that it is proof of God's love. The father who chastens his son loves him; but the one who does not chasten, really does not love. And, of course, we know that God loves us because of all that He has done for us (Jn. 3.16). One possible way that God chastens us is by allowing the very hardships, difficulties, and tribulations which make running the race seem difficult. That is why Paul writes, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Rom. 5.3-4).

     Unfortunately, some react to tribulations by blaming God and turning away from Him; but when we understand that God's chastening is proof of His love, we shall not let them separate us from Him, but like Paul glory in our tribulations.  With this kind of attitude, we can actually use our tribulations as stepping stones to draw closer to God and ultimately gain the prize (Jas. 1.2-3, 12). The fact that God's chastening is a demonstration of His love for His children and that He allows tribulations not to harm us but to strengthen us should be a source of great encouragement in running the race
     Philip Doddridge, an eighteenth century preacher and author of "O Happy Day," wrote another hymn based upon this passage (with some hints from Phil. 3:13-14 as well):

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve, And press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal, And an immortal crown.
A crowd of witnesses around Holds thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod, And onward urge thy way.
'Tis God's all animating voice That calls thee from on high;
'Tis His own hand presents the prize To thine aspiring eye.
Blest Savior, introduced by Thee, Have I my race begun,
And crowned with victory at Thy feet I'll lay my honors down.

     The apostle Paul often used athletic metaphors to make spiritual points. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run this: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9.24-27).

     All of us are in a race from here to eternity. Either we are running down the broad way that leads to everlasting destruction or we are running the strait and narrow way that leads to everlasting life (Matthew 7:13-14). The strait and narrow way can be difficult at times with various hardships hat discourage us; but God offers us encouragement through the great cloud of witnesses, the example of Jesus His Son, the comfort of the scriptures, and the knowledge of His love in His chastisement. With this kind of encouragement, "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.”

By Wayne S. Walker
From Expository Files 18.11; November 2011