All of us are on a journey through life—a journey that Hebrews 12:1 refers to as “the race that is set before us.” With the start of a new calendar year, we are in effect looking ahead to a new year in this race. We cannot tell where our journey will take us in the coming year, or what we will encounter along the way. While we will enjoy blessings, we likely will also meet with adversity and challenging circumstances beyond our control. We must have the kind of faith that will take us not just from year to year, but from day to day, and from experience to experience, whatever those experiences may be.
God has indicated in His Word that we are to run this Christian race with faith and perseverance, in order to finish well. In Hebrews chapter 11, we find a catalog of individuals who persevered by faith in the face of enormous challenges. Their accounts teach us that at times, faith experiences deliverance from adversity, and at other times, it refuses deliverance. Enoch was delivered from death when he was translated. Noah was delivered from the Flood. Abraham was delivered from idolatry. Sarah was delivered from barrenness in her old age. Joseph and his family experienced deliverance from famine. Moses and Israel were delivered from the Egyptians. So, there is a faith that experiences deliverance. Hopefully, we have shared in that faith.
However, there is also a faith that refuses deliverance. Chapter 11 also tells of those who were tortured and did not accept deliverance, who were mocked, scourged, imprisoned, and stoned. Others wandered in deserts, in mountains, or found themselves hiding in the dens and caves of this earth. These were ordinary people who experienced extraordinary challenges, but they stayed in the race of faith to the end.
Hebrews 11 is a record of what happened in the past. Continuing on to chapter 12, we find what could be considered an application for the present. The writer, assumed by many to be Paul, begins that chapter by saying, “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. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Notice the opening word, “Wherefore . . . ” The writer was implying, “Based upon what you have just read . . .” which was the catalog of faithful saints listed in chapter 11. Then he proceeded to give some instruction regarding actions we are to take in order to apply the principles of faith to our own lives. We are to see the cloud of witnesses; we are to lay aside every weight; we are to run the race with patience; and we are to look to Jesus and to consider Him.
Seeing the cloud of witnesses
We need to observe—to take note of the cloud of witnesses who persevered in the face of adversity, including the Biblical individuals just named. We have other examples of those in Scripture who overcame immense odds as well. They triumphed in circumstances that were insurmountable by man, though not by God.
We also have seen examples in our lifetimes—people who walked by faith. We have witnessed at least some of what they encountered, although no doubt we were aware of only a fraction of what they went through. Yet, they made the goal! They proved that we can choose to fight circumstances we cannot control, or accept and benefit by them. Faith embraces, learns, and grows from difficulties.
Their lives also bear witness to the fact that we can persevere and make the goal as they did. They refused to give up. Nothing caused them to waiver in their faith. We are strengthened in our own faith and determination when we observe that great cloud of witnesses. By the grace of God, we can triumph as they triumphed.
Laying aside every weight
Next, the writer of Hebrews instructs us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” Unnecessary weights slow us down. We cannot imagine successfully running a race in an overcoat. In every era, no matter what the normal attire for one participating in a race, a serious runner dresses down. He removes anything that would slow his progress. And that is what we must do—we must put aside anything that impedes our spiritual progress.
What is the “sin that doth so easily beset us”? Some understand besetting sin to allude to carnality—a reference to those who are saved but not yet sanctified, and thus are battling that inward propensity toward sin which caused them to choose wrongdoing when they first became accountable to God. Others think that “besetting sin” refers to the fact that there is sin all about us in the environment of this life. Whatever the case, we must distance ourselves from ungodly influences. We do not want to be like Lot who pitched his tent toward the wicked city of Sodom; rather, we want to be like Abraham who refused to go there. We are in the world, but we do not want to be of the world. We must determine to not be influenced by the wickedness around us, but to set ourselves apart from it. As we dedicate ourselves to God with a determination to live for Him and to persevere no matter what our surroundings, He will help us.
A pace for the race
This verse does not say, “Let us run the race that is set before us.” It says, “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” At first glance, running and patience could seem to be in conflict. However, while we might assume a runner always tries to run as fast as possible, that is only true of a short distance sprint. For any race longer than a quarter mile, a runner must pace himself so he will not burn out before the finish line. It takes patience to set a sustainable pace and stick with it. And in the Gospel as well, we must run with patience.
We cannot serve God in a hurry. We cannot read the Bible in a hurry; if we try to do so, we probably will not get much out of it. We cannot pray in a hurry, except possibly in an emergency.
We cannot serve God in a hurry. We cannot read the Bible in a hurry; if we try to do so, we probably will not get much out of it. We cannot pray in a hurry, except possibly in an emergency. Our daily time spent with God cannot be rushed and still be productive.
This Gospel race demands patience, which also implies constancy or endurance. Patience is needed when circumstances are against us. When circumstances are favorable, we do not need patience! Even the impatient can be patient in those circumstances. When we face adversity, though, our faith is measured more accurately.
One thing we know about patience is that it typically involves waiting. Most of us do not like to wait. My wife Debbie and I went on a drive yesterday. We pulled up to a coffee shop, but there were many cars in line at the drive-up window. I prefer not to wait in line so I parked and went in. I have generally found that there is less of a wait when I go in, and my wife and I are both happier. We make every attempt to avoid waiting!
In our walk with God, we tend to want answers now. God gives the answers but He may not give the answers we want, and He may not give them immediately. Either way, patience is necessary. We will need patience during the coming year. In fact, we may need patience before the day is out! Are we determined to persevere even if it means waiting? We have a cloud of individuals who bear witness to the fact that they persevered, and we can too! If they did, we can also.
Following the course
The admonition to run with patience “the race that is set before us” suggests a course. The North Umpqua River flows behind the property where I grew up and where my parents still live, just outside of Roseburg, Oregon. The river starts about seventy miles east of Roseburg in the Cascade Mountains. It follows a channel that winds near Roseburg and then to Garden Valley where it meets the South Umpqua River and becomes the Umpqua River. Then it goes on for another one hundred miles or so, meandering through the Coast Range to Winchester Bay and into the Pacific Ocean. Its course is not a straight line, even though a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. The river’s course is circuitous.
We are on a course through life, and that course will not be a straight line, in part because God does not design it to be so. He designs it to include experiences and circumstances not of our choosing. No matter what twists and turns life takes, no matter what the grade or incline we must climb, no matter what obstacles we face, we must keep running. This race takes a lifetime to complete.
We do not know how long it will take to complete this race. We do not know what is between the starting point and the ending point. But one thing we do know is that we can finish!
When I attended Joseph Lane Junior High School in Roseburg, I participated in cross-country running. Back in those days, I was skinny and fast! In school competitions, we knew where the race started and finished, and approximately how long it would take. The course went through a country setting on the hill just above the track and the football field, and ended up lower. Our Christian race begins when we pray through to salvation, and it will end in Heaven with our glorification. However, we do not know how long it will take to complete this race. We do not know what is between the starting point and the ending point. But one thing we do know is that we can finish! We can persevere. That is our goal. We are going to keep running, and we are going to overcome all along the way.
Our spiritual race includes training. In verses 6-8 of this chapter, we find a reference to “chastening” of God. We read that this chastening is evidence of sonship. When our earthly parents disciplined us, that discipline was not always intended as punishment. At times, it was simply for training. The same is true in our Christian lives. If we are being tested or chastened, it is evidence that we are God’s children. He has determined that training will be beneficial for us.
The writer of Hebrews acknowledges that discipline is not enjoyable, saying, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11). Therefore, when trials come, we can rejoice in the fact that this training will help us be stronger and better children of God.
Looking to Jesus
We are to look “unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” Our faith began in Him, and it will end in Him, so we are to keep our eyes focused on Him. Trained runners do not glance over their shoulders to see how close the runner behind them is. They focus on that tape which indicates the finish line. In our spiritual race, we do not need to be the first one; we just need to get across the line! We do so by keeping our eyes on Jesus. If we start looking at ourselves or those around us, it will slow us down. We must keep our eyes on Jesus.
Verses 3-4 instruct us, “Consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” We have not encountered what others have encountered before us. We have not even encountered what many of our peers have endured in life. We have seen others go through difficult times and persevere; we have seen them cross the line and finish their courses.
We do not know if the end of our personal race will arrive during the coming year or not. It will for some; perhaps it will for all of us. If the Trumpet sounds, we will look back and rejoice in the fact that God helped us stay true to the end. In the meantime, we are going to observe the cloud of witnesses. We are going to lay aside the hindrances. We are going to run with patience this race. We are going to remember to look to and consider Jesus all along the way. As we do, we will find that God’s grace is readily supplied, and He will be by our side to see us through.