1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is set before us with endurance, ridding ourselves of every impediment and of the sin that so easily entangles, 2 fixing our eyes on the founder and finisher of the faith, Jesus. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and then he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Today is New Year’s Day. It is a day when we reflect upon the year gone by and anticipate the year to come. Old patterns of behavior are examined, and new ones are established. In short, it is a time of transition.
Perhaps you, your family, or your congregation are experiencing a time of transition for other reasons. Perhaps you have lost someone that you love, and you are learning to live life without them. Perhaps your church or your office is changing leadership, and there are uncertainties to be confronted and adjustments to be made. Perhaps you are the one moving on to a new job or a new city, and you need a way to get your bearings in this new place of service to God and others.
Whatever the reason, the writer of Hebrews provides for us wise counsel about how to navigate such transitions. He (we presume it was a man, though we do not know for sure) wrote this letter to Christ-followers who faced many challenges. His exhortations to run the race that is set before us, to get rid of anything that gets in our way, and to focus on Jesus not only speak powerfully to their needs; they speak with equal power to us.
Run the Race with Endurance
The “race” is a powerful metaphor for the life of trust, loyalty, and obedience that is summed up in that one word we translate “faith.” We know this simply because of our ability to intuit the writer’s meaning, but we also know this because of the grammatical and rhetorical features of verse one. Faith is not, in the thought-world of Hebrews, something that we express once and for all at our conversion or our baptism. It is a way of life. Indeed, it is the way of life that shapes our identity, our purpose for living, and our destiny.
This “race” has two distinctive features. First, we do not get to design its course. That has already been done for us. We simply have to volunteer to run the race as it is. Second, it is not a sprint. It is a marathon, and this means that it will obviously require endurance.
As we confront a new year, as well as the other transitions in our lives, the writer of Hebrews calls us to recommit ourselves to the race of faith. He is not naive; he knows that the race may be far longer and more challenging than we anticipated when we first signed up for it. Nevertheless, he reminds us of all those who have run the race before us in order to encourage us not to give up.
Get Rid of Anything that Gets in Our Way
Ancient Greeks were serious about their races. They often ran them completely naked so as not to be weighed down by anything. That is how seriously we ought to take our participation in this race.
Obviously, we ought to get rid of the sin in our lives. Sin is so pernicious precisely because it wraps its tendrils around us and prevents us from moving in a positive direction. Moreover, it keeps us from focusing on the goal of the race (see below). Imagine running naked through a briar patch. You won’t care very much about the race or who is at the end of it. All you are going to care about is tending to the wounds inflicted by the briars and figuring out how to get yourself out of the mess that you are in.
There are, however, other things that can get in our way when we try to run the race of faith. As David DeSilva reflects upon this question in his commentary on Hebrews, he finds four things that may have been relevant for the original readers of this letter.
- The Desire for Social Respectability
- The Desire to Protect One’s Economic Interests
- The Desire to Preserve One’s Influence over Society
- The Desire to Promote One’s Physical Safety
None of these things are bad in and of themselves. Indeed, we are encouraged to do things that work towards these ends in other parts of Scripture (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-11). But if these impulses get in the way of our devotion to Jesus, then they simply must go.
Focus on Jesus
As we run the race of faith, the writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our eyes steadily on Jesus. As we do, we will observe two things about him. First, we will learn who he is. We will see that he is “the founder and finisher of the faith.” He is, to carry forward the race analogy, the one who instituted the race. He is the one who determined the course upon which the race will be run. He is the one who showed us how to run the race—not simply by pointing us to the course upon which it would be run and explaining its rules, but by running it himself.
Second, focusing on Jesus directs our attention to what he did when he ran the race. He kept his eyes on the prize that he would receive once he completed the race. What was that prize? It was Joy—the joy of returning to his rightful place with God and the joy that would come from accomplishing salvation for us. Because he kept his eyes fixed upon this prize, he was able to reject the validity of the scorn that was heaped upon him for what he was doing. The cross may have been an inhumane and undignified way to die, and it may not have fulfilled the expectations of those who eagerly awaited God’s intervention in the world. But none of that mattered. What mattered is that Jesus completed his task. He endured the cross, and therefore he received the reward that lay just on the other side of that horrific experience.
Of course, the whole point of this exhortation is not simply so that we can gain information about who Jesus is and what he did. It is so that we can see in him an example of how we ought to run our race. As we have already mentioned, the temptation to value self-preservation over everything else is strong, and we will not resist it long if we do not pursue a vital connection with the one who has initiated us into a new way of life and who promises us more than we can ask or imagine.
What We Gain
So what is the payoff to such a course of action? Why should we take upon ourselves such a difficult task? After all, it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to realize that the race Hebrews is talking about involves suffering and shame. What does such a race have to do with us in the twenty-first century, and how can implementing the exhortations of this ancient sermon help us to navigate the turbulent waters of change?
First, following the advice that we find here will help us see the Christian journey for what it really is. It is important to pursue some balance at this point. Not every aspect of our journey with Christ is going to be characterized by suffering and shame. But neither will our journey be one of unmitigated pleasure. Suffering is part of the process, and shame is the price of admission to faithfulness.
Second, following the advice we find here will help us keep our focus on what really matters. It is all too easy to become distracted by the things that our flesh and our culture say are important. Such things may meet our immediate physical or emotional needs, but they rarely have any lasting value. And they often carry with them their own burden of suffering and shame. (Think about how humiliating it would be to require the assistance of paramedics because one ran naked through a briar patch.) We are called to lay aside the cheap thrills and momentary obsessions that enslave our world and to focus on those things that reflect the glory and will of God. Wouldn’t their approval be far more valuable than anything the world could give us?
Third, following the sage advice we have been discussing reminds us that we are not alone. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews recounts a long list of people who have run this race ahead of us, and the writer of Hebrews insists that they are gathered around the arena that is our world to see how we will perform. But, more importantly, Christ has run this race ahead of us, and he runs it with us through the Holy Spirit. We can face whatever comes our way in this new year (and in our new situations) because we do not face it alone.
Fourth, implementing the advice that we find in Hebrews reminds us of whose opinion really matters. Obviously, we want the approval of our Lord, for it is he that set us on this course, and it is he who awaits us at the finish line. But I think that we also should desire the approval of those who have run the race ahead of us. Wouldn’t it be neat if, at the end, Abraham shook your hand and said, “You really trusted God in the midst of some really uncertain times. I’m proud of you,”? Or what if Ruth ran up to you and gave you a hug, saying, “Way to go! You really loved the people that God placed in your life!” Or what if Ester politely smiled at you and said, “It really took a lot of courage for you to take on that challenge.”