1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up (Hebrews 12:1-3).2
1 So, therefore, since we also are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must keep running the race set out before us with endurance, having put off every weight and the sin which has such a grip on us, 2 continually keeping our eyes from distractions and fixing them on Jesus, who is both the initiator and the finisher of the faith. It was because of the joy set before Him that He endured the cross, disregarding the shame it brought, and consequently He has now taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For you must give careful and constant thought to the one who endured such rebellion against himself, so that you might not grow weary and give in.
I appreciate R. Kent Hughes’ two-volume commentary on the Book of Hebrews. As a preacher, I could easily identify with the story he told in the introduction to his message on our text.3 It was his first year as the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He was agonizing over his final preparations for his message when one of the elders burst in, announcing that two famous British preachers – Dr. Alan Redpath and Dr. Stephen Olford4 – were sitting together in the audience. Knowing that his audience included these two men certainly quickened his pulse and made him much more apprehensive about his sermon.
I have only spoken three times at Dallas Theological Seminary, once at a graduation ceremony, and twice in chapel. It is a most interesting experience to stand in front of the pulpit, knowing that behind you there is a semi-circle of highly esteemed professors. The good news is that they are behind you, so that you cannot see their facial expressions as you preach, but it certainly does inspire you to do your very best work as you speak.
There are also those who have an audience but don’t know it. Technology has increased the danger of unintentional revelations. Recently, several politicians have been embarrassed because they made an indiscrete comment, unaware that their microphone was turned on, so that their remarks became a matter of public record. It really helps to know that you have an audience. In our text, the author will begin by telling his readers that they have an audience, a very large one at that, and knowing this should significantly impact the way they live their lives. This book is written not only for their benefit, but for ours, so let us listen well and learn what the Spirit of God is saying to us about living a life of faith.
We have been dealing with a number of themes in the earlier chapters of Hebrews. Some of these themes would be:
1. The sufficiency of the Savior as our Great High Priest.
2. The deficiency of man, and our great need for a Great High Priest.
3. The superiority of the New Covenant to the Old, and the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that of Aaron.
4. Those Old Testament saints who were so revered by the Hebrew believers were commended for their faith, not for their law-keeping.
5. Those commended for their faith in chapter 11 were far from perfect. They were flawed human beings whose failures were evident to all. They were not commended on the basis of their flawless performance, but rather on the basis that the One in whom they trusted was (and continues to be) perfect.
6. Those who live by faith realize that their rewards are not earthly, but spiritual and heavenly, and thus they live by faith as strangers and pilgrims in this world.
7. Faith is not a guarantee of prosperity and success in this life. Some of those in the hall of faith (chapter 11) were victorious, and others suffered greatly.
8. The Old Testament saints waited for their rewards after their death; they waited for their rewards so that they could receive them at the same time we do (11:39-40).
Like a good many others, I believe that our text, Hebrews 12:1-3, should actually be a part of chapter 11. If I understand the text correctly, these three verses serve as the conclusion to chapter 11. I hope this will become more evident as we proceed in our study. I believe that our text puts chapter 11 in its proper perspective. We know that the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day had a somewhat distorted admiration for and loyalty to the most prominent characters in the hall of faith, namely Abraham5 and Moses.6 Our text commands us to fix our eyes on Jesus, for He alone is the Author and Finisher of our faith.
The Judaism of Jesus’ day (not to mention others) believed that prosperity was proof of piety, while suffering was God’s punishment for sin. That was the mindset of Job’s friends, who kept insisting that Job was being punished for wrongdoing. It was also the belief of Asaph, the author of Psalm 73. That is why he could not understand why the ungodly were prospering (in his estimation, at least), while the godly (himself in particular) were suffering. It is why Jesus spoke so much about money, and why He told the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. Who would have imagined that Lazarus would go to heaven, while the rich man would suffer in hell?
Our author has already demonstrated that some people of faith experienced victory and deliverance, while others in the hall of faith suffered and even died for their faith. In our text, we will be shown that the Author and Finisher of our faith, the Lord Jesus, experienced the ultimate in suffering for our sakes, and then in the following verses of chapter 12, we will learn that our trials and tribulations are the norm, not the exception, and that they are evidence of the fact that God is our loving Father, who disciplines us through suffering for our good. Here is a perspective on suffering that we will only find in God’s Word.
Do you remember (Of course not, many of you are younger than I am!) those days when college students used to see how many bodies they could stuff into a Volkswagen Beetle? The door of the Beetle would open, and bodies of students would begin to spill out. It didn’t seem possible that all those people could fit into such a small space. That is the way I feel when I come to our text. It is composed of only three verses, but they are packed with important truths. The tenses (aorist, present) and forms of the verbs (subjunctive, imperative, participle) are pregnant with implications. The distinction between what is singular and what is plural is also important.
To be more specific, I believe that we are to understand our text in a way that is similar to the interpretation of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. There is but one imperative verb, and that is the command to “make disciples.” The “going,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” instructions are all participles.7 In this way, the Lord has distinguished primary goal from secondary means. Thus, we are to make disciples by means of going, baptizing, and teaching. I believe the same to be the case in our text, where there are two main verbs (“let us run” in verse 1; “Think about” in verse 3). “Let us run” in verse 1 is a subjunctive verb, and thus an exhortation. “Think about” in verse 3 is an imperative. The rest of the verbs are participles, though one would not necessarily recognize this from the English translations. I therefore understand the structure of our text to be like this:
Command: “Let us keep running … with endurance”
Having put off every weight and the sin that entangles
Looking to Jesus
Who is the author and perfecter of faith>
Who endured the shame of the cross>
Who is seated at the Father’s right hand>
Command: Think of Him who endured such hostility, so that we won’t grow weary and quit
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us (Hebrews 12:1).
We are very accustomed to seeing “therefore” in the epistles, but normally as the translation of another very common connective particle. Here the Greek particle is a term that is a composite of three Greek particles.8 This term is found only one other time in the New Testament, in 1 Thessalonians 4:8:
3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:1-9, emphasis mine).
What I want you to see here is that the term “consequently” (rendered “therefore” in Hebrews 12:1) is clearly indicating that verse 8 is the conclusion of the author’s argument in verses 3-7. Verse 9 begins a whole new section. I believe the same is true in our text in Hebrews 12:1. The “therefore” designates the next couple of sentences as the conclusion of the argument of chapter 11. The author then moves on to a new (but closely related) aspect of his argument in verse 4. If we are to understand our text as we should, we must do so by interpreting and applying it in the light of the message of chapter 11.
Let’s talk for a moment about the great company of witnesses that are referred to in verse 1 of chapter 12. Almost certainly these “witnesses” include those named in the hall of faith in chapter 11. Note that this is not a company of great witnesses; it is a “great company” of witnesses. We have already noted that these saints were commended for their faith, not for living a flawless, failure-free, law-keeping life. It is always faith in Christ and His perfection that saves flawed sinners.
The word that is employed by the author – rendered “witnesses” in our translation – is a translation of the Greek word which would be transliterated “martyr.”9 Biblical scholars have pointed out that at this point in time, the word meant “witness” and that sometime later, when persecution became more intense, it came to convey the sense of being an actual martyr – a witness who died for his or her testimony to Jesus. Perhaps so, but let us not forget that these “witnesses” included those who did suffer greatly and die because of their faith (Hebrews 11:35b-38). I believe the original readers of this epistle would have understood this.
The imagery our author employs is not that of a cemetery, as though the runners can look about and see the tombstones of those who have gone before us. Rather, the author speaks of this multitude of witnesses as those who are still alive, and who are actively cheering us on till we reach the finish line. Just as we have been told that Abel is still speaking (Hebrews 11:4), so here the heroes of the hall of faith are still participants in the race, now as spectators or witnesses, rather than as runners. They are very much attuned to what is going on in this world.
The NET Bible (like the NIV and the NLT) gives no indication of the presence of the Greek term rendered “also” as we find in a number of the other translations. How the other versions render the term does differ somewhat. Compare these three translations:
Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that lies before us (CSB).
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 (ESV).
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 (NKJ).
I do believe that the “also” should not be omitted in the translation because it informs the readers that we have a connection with those who make up this “great cloud10 of witnesses.” As they lived by faith, so must we. As they failed at times, so will we. As their faith was sometimes rewarded with success, and at other times with suffering, this will likewise be our experience. As they persevered in faith, living in the present in the light of their eternal reward, so should we.
I have focused on verse 1, and primarily on the term “also,” but let us not overlook the fact that all three verses of our text focus on the believing readers of Hebrews as a corporate body of believers, as a large group of contestants who are running a race. Changing the imagery, this is not a solo event; it is the performance of a choir, accompanied by a large orchestra.
Now we come to the main verb in verse 1, the author’s primary exhortation: “Let us keep running by means of endurance the race that has been set before us.”11 We are in a race, and this race has been “set before us.” The point here is that God maps out a course for our lives, which includes victories and apparent defeats (such as suffering and persecution). And the course He has set out for us is one that He Himself has run. How good to know that it is our sovereign Lord who has set out our course, and that He has endured the course set before Him with all of its difficulties, suffering far more than we will ever be called upon to endure. He would never set out a course that we could not complete, so that with Paul we could say,
7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
In order to carry out this exhortation,12 certain actions must be taken. Given the (aorist) tense of the participle (having set aside), I’m inclined to view these actions as prerequisites to be fulfilled before we begin the race. Let’s face it, most of the work of an athlete takes place ahead of the competition, not at the competition. The competition is the culmination of a long process of preparation.
So just what are we to have laid aside in order to run with endurance so as to complete the race set out for us? Here is where it gets interesting. We are to put off “every weight” (or hindrance) and “the sin which has such a strong grip on us.”
There is obviously a connection between “weights” (which are hindrances) and besetting sin. Both hinder one from running the race with endurance and perseverance. But there are differences that must be taken into account as well. It seems to me that in our text “weights” are distinguished from besetting sin. A weight isn’t a sin; it is just a hindrance. But a besetting sin is sin. When the author speaks about the “weight” we are to lose (by setting it aside), he speaks of “every” weight. Even though “weight” is singular, “every” suggests to me that there may be many things which could serve as hindrances to our running well.
When running a race, almost anything that adds weight to the runner is a hindrance. A minimum of light-weight clothing, along with the proper shoes is about all one should wear. In ancient times, and occasionally today, runners will run barefoot, but this is not likely to be the case in a marathon.
I once heard someone say, “If it’s not a wing, it’s a weight.” That’s good, but how can we tell the difference between a “wing” and a “weight”? In general terms, a “wing” is something that facilitates our walk of faith, while a “weight” is a hindrance to it. A wing facilitates a life of faith. A weight is anything that hinders us from carrying out our calling, something non-essential to our mission which consumes time and energy that could be better used in advancing God’s kingdom. A weight may be one thing for one believer and something else for another. A parachute would be unnecessary baggage for a mountain climber, but it is essential for a sky diver. A Christian may take up golf because it provides an opportunity to associate with non-believers and thus affords an opportunity to share the gospel with them as they play. For another, Christian golf may only be an unprofitable waste of time and money that could have been better used in other activities. The same could be said for a swimming pool, a summer cabin, or a boat.
A “weight” might be something that looks really spiritual, something for which one would be praised by other Christians. The goal in our text, as I see it, is not evangelism, as important as that is; the goal is perseverance which leads to the completion of the “race” (Christian life) that is set before us. Sometimes the church has so many programs that the saints are simply worn out trying to keep up. If we are burning people out with too many church activities, some of these might be a weight, rather than a wing.
I have only scratched the surface here, but let me move on to the other hindrance to finishing the race with endurance: our besetting sin. I am inclined to understand our author to be zeroing in on a specific sin, a sin that would be known to each saint, and quite likely to others. I think for example of Abraham. His besetting sin seems to be unbelief (fear), which resulted in his hesitancy to leave Ur and go toward the land God had promised. It also resulted in his practice of lying by passing off his wife, Sarah, as his sister. Jacob, on the other hand, was a deceiver. Samson was a man controlled by his sexual passions. I would speculate that each of my readers (and myself) has a particular sin that is the greatest hindrance to our perseverance and consistency in running the race set before us. That is the sin we need to deal with if we are serious about running our race well.
Where might some besetting sins come from? How might we better be able to identify them? Often our circumstances will reveal a predisposition to sin. We may be very happy when things are going well, but when suffering or adversity comes our way, we may grumble against others, and against God. Job’s friends, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, assumed that the rich and successful people were being blessed because of their piety, while the poor and those who were suffering were being punished for their sin. Hebrews 11 (not to mention a number of other biblical texts)13 makes it clear that faith may produce success just as it may also produce suffering.
Another source of besetting sin can be our disposition. Some folks are just naturally more optimistic in their outlook, while others are more prone to worry. They may tend to see the gloomy side of things, and thus they might be tempted to grumble and complain. The optimists are the happy-go-lucky folks who can laugh when others cry. Some are adventuresome while others are fearful. Those who are more aggressive by nature may also be inclined to act too quickly, rather than to wait on God.
Believe it or not, our spiritual gifts may predispose us toward certain besetting sins. When Paul gives instructions concerning spiritual gifts in Romans 12, he seems to indicate that our spiritual gift may be also be accompanied by a “besetting sin.”
3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith. 4 For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another. 6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness (Romans 12:3-8, emphasis mine).
Here, Paul specifically highlights a certain problem area that is related to our strengths – our spiritual gifts – and not our weaknesses. The one who gives, Paul writes, is to do so with simplicity (literally). That can mean that the giver is to give with singleness of purpose (purity of motive). How easy it is to give in such a way that others see us and praise us. Jesus had something to say about that (Matthew 6:2-4). Paul’s words can also be a challenge to give with generosity. We should give gladly and generously and not be miserly or tight-fisted. Those who have sufficient resources to give may be tempted to keep them for themselves.
Those who lead must do so with diligence. How easy it would be for one with the gift of leadership to become lax and sloppy about how they carry out their responsibilities, especially if they are a volunteer and not paid for their ministry. Those who lead in the church or in some Christian ministry quickly encounter resistance, complaining, criticism, and opposition. It is easy to get discouraged and become slack in our leadership. That would be a besetting sin for a leader. Those who show mercy are to do so with cheerfulness, but this can be a thankless ministry so that one could become cynical and bitter in their service, rather than joyfully gracious. Our strongest assets may thus be the source of a besetting sin.
One more source of besetting sin is to be found in one’s culture. The Canaanite culture fostered all kinds of evil, and this was why God sought to isolate the Israelites from too much contact and association with it. Every culture has its besetting sins. For example, the Cretans were predisposed to the sin of lying:
12 A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 Such testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith (Titus 1:12-13).
I have a friend who lives in the Middle East, and he has greatly helped me to understand some very significant differences between those in the East and those of us who live in the West. In the Middle East, we find an “honor based” society, and this leads to all kinds of evils. Believers who have grown up in this culture need to be alert to the “besetting sins” of their culture and to put off these attitudes and practices. We who live in the West have our own besetting sins as well, such as our rugged individualism and competitive spirit. We would do well to give much thought to the besetting sins of our culture, and then put off those which will cause us to stumble.
I suspect that if we are not serious enough about these weights and our besetting sin that God may intervene to help us along in these matters. For example, as I was thinking of our text in preparation for this lesson, it occurred to me that God may be using this recession to perform a kind of spiritual liposuction – removing a little excess fat by limiting our financial resources. If we refuse to “lose weight” by putting off hindrances and besetting sin, God may intervene to do it for us.
2 Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
I would first like to point out the choice of names that our author has made to refer to our Savior. He tells us to keep our eyes fixed on “Jesus,” not Christ, or the Lord, or another of His names. I believe that this is because he is calling attention to our Lord’s attitudes and actions in His incarnation, when He came to this earth fully divine and fully human. Jesus best serves as our example in the days of His humanity on earth. It is the human/divine Jesus with whom we can most readily identify. It is the incarnate Jesus who humbled Himself and became obedient to the Father’s will even unto death on the cross of Calvary.14
Furthermore, I believe that it is profitable for us to take note of the expression, “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” This term rendered “looking to” or “keeping our eyes fixed” is one that has a two-fold sense. It first of all refers to looking away from something and then looking intently on something else. So the Christian is challenged to look away from those things which merely distract, and to look intently upon Jesus.15
It should come as no surprise to the Christian that it is all about Jesus. He is introduced in the Gospel of John as the Creator, the divine cause of the universe:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created (John 1:1-3).
Paul concurs with John, adding further that He is likewise the divine sustainer of the universe:
16 For all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him (Colossians 1:16-17).
Elsewhere the Apostle Paul adds to these truths the fact that He is the goal of human history:
9 He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10; compare Romans 11:36).
Summing it all up, we can say that the Lord Jesus is the initiator and consummator of faith.18 If salvation and the Christian life are always matters of faith, even in the Old Testament – as Hebrews 11 demonstrates – then salvation and the Christian life are all about Jesus. While we are challenged to walk by faith, we are not left with the false impression that we must somehow conjure up this faith on our own. Faith is a gift from God, a gift that He gives, that He sustains, and that He perfects (brings to its completion):
8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this [faith] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
Jesus is the creator of faith, the object of our faith, and the sustainer and perfecter of our faith. One dare not speak of faith apart from speaking of Jesus.
In what way is our Lord Jesus the “author” of faith? I believe that our author spells that out in the next sentence of verse 2:
2 Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2, boldface mine).
Jesus was motivated by the “joy set out for him.” The term “set out” is the same term that we find in verse 1, which speaks of the race “set out” for us. The “joy” set out before Jesus was the joy set out for Him by the Father. While the specifics of this “joy” are not spelled out, I think that it is safe to say that this joy would include …
… the joy of obeying and carrying out the Father’s will
… the joy of bringing glory to the Father
… the joy of being raised, ascended, and exalted at the right hand of the Father
… the joy of reconciling lost sinners to God.
For this, the Lord Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame. Mel Gibson’s moving film, The Passion of the Christ, made much of the physical suffering of our Lord, but the writers of the New Testament chose not to dwell merely on His physical suffering, as excruciating as that was. What Jesus dreaded most was being made sin, and thus being abandoned by God as He bore the punishment for our sins.19 He “despised”20 the shame of the cross, willingly enduring it.
I don’t think we give sufficient attention to the shame of the cross. While stoning was the typical form of execution in Judaism, crucifixion was even more shameful:
22 If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, 23 his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:22-24).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) (Galatians 3:13).
With His eyes fixed on the “joy set before Him,” Jesus endured the shame of the cross, punctuated by the mocking of the crowd and the desertion of His disciples, so that we might be reconciled to God.
And for this God honored Jesus by raising Him from the dead, and seating Him at His right hand in glory:
32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into heaven, but he himself says,
‘The Lord said to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’
36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32-36).
3 Concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh, 4 who was appointed the Son-of-God-in-power according to the Holy Spirit by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:3-4).
8 He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
– even death on a cross!
9 As a result God exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –
11 and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:8-11).
Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up (Hebrews 12:3).
Thinking of Jesus is a command, not an option. Jesus not only endured the shame of the cross and the wrath of His Father; He also endured the opposition of sinners who cried out for His execution, and for the release of Barabbas, a terrorist. Do we feel looked down upon by unbelievers? Do we feel despised and rejected because we are Christians? The opposition we will be called upon to endure will never approximate that which our Lord Jesus endured. (To this point, they had not even suffered to the point of shedding blood – see verse 4.) This should serve to encourage those who encounter persecution and rejection, so that we do not grow weary in soul to the point of giving up.
So what have we learned from this text, and what should we do with what we have learned? Let me close with some suggestions.
First, we should be fully assured in our suffering as saints that we are not alone; we are being watched by those who have gone before us, who are cheering us on to finish the race set out before us. We are being watched by God, by the angels, and by the saints who have gone before us – that great cloud of witnesses:
“But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (1 Corinthians 11:10).
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).21
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us (Hebrews 12:1).
There are times when we feel abandoned, left alone, in our sufferings for our faith. That is the way Elijah felt when he was ready to turn in his prophet’s mantle:
Elijah said to them: “I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but there are 450 prophets of Baal” (1 Kings 18:22; see also 19:10, 14; Romans 11:3).
Elijah was wrong. There were 7,000 faithful saints who had not bowed the knee to Baal.22
Though it was years ago, I remember reading one of Joni Eareckson Tada’s books (most likely it was Joni). She was describing her bitterness as she lay in her hospital bed, wondering what good could come from her accident or from her testimony. Then it occurred to her that there were many “witnesses” watching with great interest. How she responded to her affliction did impact others.
I believe that in addition to the Trinity and the angelic host, there is a cloud of witnesses cheering us on in the race set before us. They are not passive observers, but those who have already run their portion of the relay race of faith. The baton is now ours, and how well we run matters a great deal to others, those who have come before us and those who will come after us. Let us run our race well, knowing that it has been set out for us by God, that our Lord has already completed His course, and that those who have run before us are cheering us on. We are not alone!
I recently heard a rather distressing prediction that a growing number of those who profess to be “born again Christians” will never be a part of a church or congregation. They will use the failures of the church and those who profess faith to excuse themselves from associating with a church. That is what Elijah sought to do, and God sent him back to his ministry and to an association with other saints (first of whom was Elisha). A relay race cannot be run alone.
Second, we are called to a life of diligence, self-discipline, and exertion because the One who has set the race before us has run the race successfully, and He is sufficient to save, sanctify, and perfect us. The sovereignty of God is not inconsistent with human responsibility; human responsibility is rooted in the sovereignty and sufficiency of God. The Christian life is a life which begins with faith, perseveres through faith, and is perfected by faith. The Christian life is only possible because of the provision of God in Jesus. This is why we must keep our eyes on Him.
The centrality of Jesus Christ must never be forgotten. If we become too devoted to men, we should be reminded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 that the Christian life is all about Jesus. Paul preached Christ crucified. There were those who wanted to “move on” to other teachings and to other leaders. Not Paul! To him, it is Christ alone who saves, Christ alone who sanctifies, and Christ alone who should be preeminent. This is one of the reasons why we celebrate the Lord’s Table every week. We must continually be reminded that our faith is to be Christ-centered. He alone must be preeminent.
16 For all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son (Colossians 1:16-19).
The heroes of the hall of faith are not to be the center of our attention. They were all flawed men and women who were commended for their trust in God. It is Jesus alone on whom our eyes are to be fixed. He alone can save and sustain us. He is not only our rewarder, but our great reward. Let us look to Him, and let us run the race before us with endurance.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 30 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 22, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org
3 R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1993), vol. 2, p. 157. I would also suggest that you read his account of playing tennis with Larry King, husband of Billy Jean King (as Billy Jean watched) – pp. 157-158.
4 Hughes indicates that at the time, Dr. Redpath was the pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, and Dr. Olford was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York City.
5 See Matthew 3:9; John 8:39-58.
6 See John 5:45-46; 6:32; 9:28.
7 This is not to say that participles cannot be used with imperatival force. It is to say that when participles are employed along with an imperative form of the verb, one might be inclined to see the imperative as primary.
8 Transliterated, it would be toi-gar-oun.
9 martu,rwn (marturown), from ma,rtuj (martus).
10 The Greek term used for “cloud” here appears only here in the New Testament, but a similar term is used in reference to our Lord’s ascension into the clouds, and return in the clouds (Matthew 24: 30; 26:64; Mark 9:7; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Somehow it seems appropriate for the author to refer to these deceased but still living saints as a “cloud” of witnesses.
11 My translation. “Keep running,” better reflects the fact that this verb is employed in the present tense.
12 The verb is subjunctive, not imperative; thus it is a strong exhortation.
13 See, for example, Genesis 50:20; Psalm 73; Romans 8:28-30; 2 Corinthians 1; 1 Peter 4:1—5:10.
14 See Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 2:5-18.
15 This is not the time or place to do so, but the Bible speaks of a close relationship between the eye and the heart. See Genesis 3:1-7; Deuteronomy 18:8; 15:9; Proverbs 23:4-6, 26; 28:22; Jeremiah 22:17; Ezekiel 24:16, 21; Matthew 6:22-23; 18:9; 20:15.
16 The Greek term rendered “pioneer” is employed to depict a chief, prince, or leader, as well as a founder.
17 This exact term is found nowhere else, and thus it could have been coined by the author. Related terms are found in Scripture and elsewhere. Since Hebrews seeks to encourage saints to persevere to perfection, and since it depicts our Lord as the one who brings us to perfection, it is not surprising to find this term here.
18 A number of the translations render “our faith,” rather than “faith.” Technically the term rendered “our” is not present in the Greek text (as is indicated by the NASB, and by the italicized “our in the KJV and NKJV), though the continued … author may have expected his readers to supply it. It is possible, however, that the author is speaking of Jesus as the origin and completer of faith (ours and others), or even the faith, though this seems unlikely.
19 See Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46.
20 “Disregarding” seems a little weak to me; I prefer “despising.”
21 The angels are called “observers” or “watchers” in Daniel 4:17.
22 1 Kings 19:18.