The epistle of Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christians who were facing persecution. Sorely tried in their afflictions, these suffering believers were in danger of falling away. To avoid persecution, some were contemplating returning to Judaism – a legal religion that was sanctioned and protected under Roman law.
Urging the Hebrew Christians to remain steadfast, the writer, believed to be the apostle Paul, dwelt on the nature and power of faith, in Chapter 11. Paul had defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (v 1). No man was present “in the beginning” when “God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1: 1). This truth – that the world came into existence by “the word of God” (cf Ps 33: 6; 148: 1-5) (–) must be accepted by faith: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (v 3).
Albert Barnes aptly commented: “If this vast universe has been called into existence by the mere word of God, there is nothing which we may not believe He has ample power to perform.”
Continuing his exhortation, Paul urged the believers to look to the “cloud of witnesses” (12: 1) who had triumphed gloriously over their trials and endured to the end. These (faithful) “heroes of faith” had “obtained a good report through faith” (11: 39). In particular, the apostle highlighted the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and other Old Testament saints (11: 4-40).
“Faith proves to the mind, the reality of things that cannot be seen by the bodily eye. It is a full approval of all God has revealed, as holy, just, and good. This view of faith is explained by many examples of persons in former times, who obtained a good report, or an honourable character in the word of God. Faith was the principle of their holy obedience, remarkable services, and patient sufferings” (Matthew Henry).
In the opening verses of Hebrews 12, the apostle compared the Christian life to a race: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 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 is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (vv 1-2).
The first word, “wherefore” in verse 1 is linked with the previous chapter which parades the Old Testament examples of faith and patience highlighted above. What characteristics of the Christian race can we glean from verses 1-2?
1. There is “a race that is set before us”
2. Learn from past examples of faith
3. Lay aside every weight
4. Run with patience
5. Look unto Jesus
1. There is “a race that is set before us”
Here, the apostle Paul likened the Christian life to a race. Unlike normal races that end after an appointed time, the Christian race is a life-long marathon “set before us” by God. Such a race would not be an easy one. Many would be the obstacles and distractions along the way. As a parallel to the Christian life, there would be the conflicts from within and without, trials to endure, foes to face, temptations to be resisted and sinful habits to overcome.
In order to successfully complete the course, one has to be single-minded, diligent and disciplined. In his epistle to the Corinthian believers, the apostle often spoke of himself as a contender in the games: “not as one (a boxer) that beateth the air” (I Cor 9: 26), but as one whose blows were well-directed “to the grand purpose of subjugating his enemy – sin, and the corrupt desires of the flesh – and bringing everything into captivity to God” (Albert Barnes).
Like an athlete, the apostle kept his body by rigid discipline, bringing “it into subjection” (I Cor 9: 27). As he raced, Paul’s eyes were focused on the prize that awaited him at the end of the race – “a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (II Tim 4: 8). In verse 7, he could proclaim triumphantly that “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
The “cloud of witnesses” or “heroes of faith” had also run the race well. The apostle urged these New Testament Jewish believers to do likewise – to run “the race that is set before us” and to complete the course. As runners, they ought not to faint in their trials, but to persevere in their faith and focus on finishing the race. (… to be continued)