A race for heroes

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 12:1-3

The challenge of life

I have wondered lately about my choice in avocations. I like golf and fly-fishing. These two activities have one thing in common: They are very difficult and can therefore be very frustrating. I have wondered what it is about me that makes me gravitate toward such difficult endeavors. Why, when I want to get away from it all, do I choose something that's impossible to do well? Most of the time when I play golf, I play on municipal courses that are somewhat forgiving. Once in a while, I play on a nice course, which is invariably more challenging and which, not surprisingly, I like playing more. Two weeks ago I played with some friends at San Juan Oaks, a beautiful golf course near Hollister. Predictably, it trounced me. As we were driving home, I lamented, "Why is it that the really nice golf courses are always so difficult?" My friend was quick to respond, "And why is it that you fish for 20-inch wild trout and not 10-inch hatchery trout?" I knew the answer: I like a challenge.

Something tells me that I was born liking a challenge. Something tells me that I was born for a challenge. The evidence around me suggests that I am not alone. It also suggests that we were born for a more significant challenge than playing golf or catching fish. It suggests that we were born for the challenge of life. If you spend enough time around children, you'll find that they are often imagining grand and challenging adventures, and that they love those kinds of stories. We all start out that way. We all start out with a longing to live heroically, for something beyond ourselves. Then reality bites. Things happen to us - things that shouldn't happen. People do things and say things they shouldn't do and say. We feel the pain of shame and embarrassment, and it seems to sometimes take all the energy we have just to survive, let alone live heroically. Sometimes we grow weary. We wonder if the good guys really do win in the end.

The writer of Hebrews sees life as a challenge. He sees it as a race fraught with encumbrances and entanglements that can cause loss of heart. Yet he holds out hope that it can and should be lived heroically. In Hebrews 12:1-3, we are challenged to run the race of faith without being deterred by the pain it causes.

In Hebrews 11, the writer told stories. Beginning with the word "therefore," in Hebrews 12 he comes to the point of the stories. In Hebrews 11 the writer spoke of "all these" Old Testament believers (11:39), but in the last verse of the chapter he makes the transition to "us" (11:40). In Hebrews 12, the writer tells us what he wants us to do with all these great stories of faith. He intends the stories to inspire our faith, particularly our "endurance" in the faith. At the end of Chapter 10, he said his readers "have need of endurance" (10:36). The theme continues through Chapter 11 and into Chapter 12, where the verb "endure" and the noun "endurance" appear three times in the first three verses.

Run the race (12:1)

Hebrews 12:1:

(1) Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, ...

The word "therefore" roots the writer's discussion in the soil of Chapter 11, as does the word "witnesses," the verb of which was used in Hebrews 11:2, 4, 5 and 39, although it isn't always translated that way. These witnesses from Chapter 11 are somehow supposed to encourage us.

These witnesses, the men and women who believed the promises of God and lived their lives based on them, are now pictured as comprising a "great cloud of witnesses surrounding us." The imagery is that of a Greek amphitheater filled with so many people that they constitute a "cloud." The word "great" not only implies quantity but quality as well. There is something great not only about the number of these people but the kind of people they are.

In what sense are they witnesses? The related verb was used five times in Hebrews 11 of these people being witnessed by God in the scriptures. Hebrews 11:39 reads literally, "And all these having been witnessed through their faith, did not receive what was promised." They are witnesses first of all in the sense that they are witnessed by God, who shares his witness of them with us. His witness to us is that these people were "righteous" and "pleasing to God" (11:4-5). Therefore, though Abel is dead, "he still speaks" (11:4). This is the sense in which these people are witnesses: They speak. They speak of the value of faith. They are not, therefore, looking down from heaven and watching what we do. However, in a metaphorical sense, they are cheering us on through the stories of their lives as recorded in the Old Testament and Hebrews 11. They are cheering us on from their position "surrounding" us.

We, on the other hand, are in a different position. We're on the track, and we're in a race. The main verb in the sentence that comprises verses 1 and 2 is a command, and the command is to "run." The writer compares the life of faith to a long-distance race that requires "endurance." The life of faith, then, is a contest of sorts - it is a challenge. This race is "set before us." We know what it is, the challenge to believe the promises of God and to act on them. We also know who set up the course: God. The specific struggles and adventures that await us are unknown.

Why is running this race such a challenge? Because there are things that encumber and entangle us. The writer instructs us to "lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us." The imagery is that of taking off different types of clothing which would otherwise weigh down or restrict a runner. Such clothing would make endurance even more difficult. The writer has two types of "clothing" - anything at all that might hinder a person of faith, for he refers to "every" encumbrance, and a more specific kind of hindrance: "sin." Although he wants us to cast aside anything that would hinder us in the race of faith, he is specifically concerned with sin, for he talks about "sinners" in verse 3 and "striving against sin" in verse 4.

What, then, is this sin that so easily entangles us? For the answer, we need to briefly jump ahead to verse 3, where Jesus is held up as our principal example of faith. We are to follow Jesus, "who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself." The writer is not talking about being entangled by our own sin, although that certainly would be among the encumbrances that could weigh us down; he's talking about the sin of others entangling us, just as it threatened to entangle Jesus. The writer is saying that the sin of others against us, if we don't somehow lay it aside, can hinder us in the race of faith. The sin that the readers were likely facing was that of their fellow Jews who rejected Christ and were persecuting them for their faith (10:32-36).

We have this great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Do we see it? Do we see them? It's easy to be overwhelmed by all the other witnesses, but the number of these witnesses is great, as is the quality of their witness. We're all looking for role models, as Paul Simon sings facetiously, "Who'll be my role model, after my role model is gone?" These men and women are given to us as role models who believed in the promises of God and therefore lived extraordinary lives. Read about them. Study them. And you'll begin to see them surrounding you, and you'll begin to hear them shouting encouragement from the stands, "Trust the Lord! The promises are worth waiting for! You can do it! Keep going!"

But it's not easy, is it? It's not easy to continue living heroically, to keep loving and giving and believing that the race is heading in a good direction. The things people do to us make it difficult to run with endurance. Society in general sometimes seems aimed against us. As a result of sin against us or sin that affects us, we become entangled by feelings of shame and betrayal and embarrassment, and cynicism and despair.

Brent Curtis, one of the authors of the book "The Sacred Romance," found himself giving in to such feelings. He writes of "the Arrows" of pain that caused him to disbelieve in "the Romance" with God:

I remember sitting in the school cafeteria alone, trying to pull the Arrows out or at least cover them over so I could enter into the banter that seemed to flow easily from my friends. I remember being pinned down on the playground by a friend of mine who was bigger than me and feeling that I would always be in that place if I wasn't careful. ...

There were other Arrows over the years that struck in that same deep place. Arrows that carried the messages about ears that were too big, and a father who never called or wrote; my stepfather, who was a cowboy, commenting to my mother that I was a town kid; another stepfather who came and went and never stayed in touch. There was a girl I loved but couldn't love (intimacy requires a heart that is released and mine was pinned down with unknown fears and grief) and so I let her go; and total confusion over what vocation I would pursue or even had an ability for. The Arrows flew and all seemed to strike close to that fearful place, a place that said I was alone in a coldly indifferent world. And even the ones that didn't I made sure they ended up there. I needed the message to be at least consistent that the world was clearly a fearful place...

I graduated from college without finding a love or a vocation. The adults I knew (who so often try to fill emptiness of soul with economic solutions) told me it was time to settle down and find a responsible life. I, on the other hand, felt that I had only begun to be restless. I felt there was nowhere I really belonged or even wanted to belong; that whatever story my family and friends had found to live in, my own had become a succession of meaningless chapters with no plot other than filling in the days.

Later, he came to Christ, but he was still in pain. He continues:

"Becoming a Christian," however, doesn't necessarily solve the dilemma of the arrows, as I was soon to realize. Mine were still lodged deep and refused to allow some angry wound inside to heal. My resulting ambivalence colored every thought, action, and relationship of those important years. One day, at my by-then fiancee's request, I sat for five hours on the shore of a lake trying to understand the doubts I had about getting married. I knew no more at the end of the day than I did at the beginning. I had no one, at that point in my life, to help me understand the ambivalence created by the Message of the Arrows. No one who could fit the contradictory messages of the two revelations (the Romance and the Arrows) into any kind of story that would allow for life's unknowns even as my heart stayed open to the intimacy of Romance. So I became my own author and killed the one to control the other. I broke my engagement. I gave up the mystery of the Romance for a story that was much more predictable - which is to say, aloneness.

The command is to run the race with endurance. The arrows hinder us. The witnesses help us, but there is a singular witness, one who is not among the crowd in the stands, who can be even more helpful.

Look to Jesus (12:2-3)

Hebrews 12:2-3:

(2) ... fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (3) For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 11 constitutes a list. Such lists can be found in Jewish writings, and the important thing is, who comes at the end? At the end of the list of the heroes of the faith is one who is called the author and perfecter of faith: Jesus. The other heroes are held up as examples, but Jesus, THE hero, is held up as the ultimate example. Jesus is the author, or originator, of faith, not in the sense that he was the first to have faith but in the sense that he was the first to have a faith that never yielded to encumbrances and entanglements. Thus, he was also the perfecter of faith, expressing faith in his life completely. The writer elsewhere invokes the beginning and the end of things to express something in all-encompassing terms (3:14, 7:3). In calling Jesus the author and perfecter of faith, he's calling Jesus the best example of all. The writer refers to him simply as "Jesus," which emphasizes his humanity. We have the role model we've been looking for, one like us.

We hear the encouragement of the crowd in the stands, but we see Jesus waiting for us at the finish line. We do more than just see him; we fix our eyes, literally, "into" him. It's as if we're told to look into the soul of Jesus. In these verses, in fact, the writer allows us to see right into the soul of Jesus. What does the writer want us to see? He wants us to see the magnitude of the sin that could have entangled Jesus and the hope that motivated him to lay it aside. He wants us to draw strength from the example of Jesus so that we might persevere in the race.
Jesus was motivated in his own race by "the joy set before him." That joy became his when he "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." It was the joy stemming from his future reign at the Father's right hand that enabled him to live as he did. There was joy set before him in his return to the Father; in the fulfillment of his destiny as king, reigning for the sake of good; and in the redemption of humanity, which gave him brothers and sisters to reign with.

To sit down on the throne, he first had to be lifted up on the cross. So he "endured the cross, despising the shame." The writer particularly focuses on the shame of the cross. Crucifixion, a Roman form of execution, was designed not only to be a painful way to die but a shameful way as well. The criminal would be exposed for all the world to see, with the written charge against him also affixed to the cross (Matthew 27:37). The word "despising" in this context would be better translated "disregarding." Jesus disregarded the shame. It's not that the shame didn't exist or didn't matter or didn't hurt; it's that the shame did not keep Jesus from running the race set before him. He could have avoided the shame of the cross. From start to finish, this was the devil's plan. In the wilderness, he tried to tempt Jesus to fulfill his destiny in a way that avoided the cross (Matthew 4:8-9), and when Jesus was on the cross, the devil tried to tempt him to come down (Matthew 27:40-43). Yet Jesus went to the cross and remained on the cross, never letting the shame deter him, because of the joy set before him.

Beginning with the word "for," in verse 3 the writer offers a more concentrated description of what Jesus endured, inviting us to "consider him." It is not the first time he has told us to "consider" Jesus. Hebrews 3:1: "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession." True and thorough "consideration" of Jesus - who he is and the life he led - leads to a stronger life of faith. Specifically, the writer wants us to consider him in light of his endurance of "such hostility by sinners against himself." Jesus had disappointed everyone so badly that when he was crucified, people hurled abuse at him, mocked him and insulted him (Matthew 27:39-44). Literally, the hostility from sinners went "into" himself. He felt their venom deeply, and he felt the shame. When we back up and see the whole picture, the hostility of the whole world went into him as he absorbed everyone's anger toward God. He thoroughly felt the shame of exposed sin. He did nothing wrong, but the world hated him and crucified him and abused him when he was down and exposed him to open shame. Jesus was the ultimate victim. Yet he didn't drop out of the race, nor did he take a shortcut to the finish line.

Why does the writer want us to consider Jesus and the hostility he absorbed? So that we "may not grow weary and lose heart." Whatever hostility we face and whatever shame comes from it, it is nothing in comparison to what Jesus endured. Hostility and shame may cause us to grow weary of the race; it may even cause us to lose heart - literally, "faint in your souls," but the inspiring example of Jesus rejuvenates us.

Jesus was the target of hostility, and he was exposed to shame. We too are targets of hostility, and sometimes, it seems, we just happened to get in the way of someone's hostility. Perhaps we end up being embarrassed by who we are and what we've done. We feel the shame of exposure. And if we truly follow Jesus, we too will take up crosses, so to speak, exposing ourselves to the possibility of even more shame (Matthew 16:24). We'll be more involved with more people - people who we may disappoint, people who may turn hostile, people who may aggravate old wounds. It can all get quite tiresome, and we feel weariness deeply. We feel like "fainting in our souls." Because we hate shame most of all, we hang back from running the race in a way that would expose us to others.

What should we do with these feelings that sap us? The writer of Hebrews says to lay them aside, and to disregard them as Jesus did. This doesn't mean denial. To lay something aside, one first needs to acknowledge it and take hold of it. The hostility went "into" Jesus; he didn't deny it. If feelings of shame or despair or cynicism or betrayal crop up, we need to acknowledge them. We need to feel what we feel. But insofar as the race is concerned, we can't drop out because of them. We can't drop out because the race is to hard, because we feel too bad. We can't give up following Christ because following Christ is too hard. Insofar as the possibility of dropping out of the race is concerned, we lay aside these feelings and disregard them. At the most extreme level, it means we don't abandon Christ because life is so hard. At less extreme levels, we decide not to be paralyzed by what others think of us. We decide to serve and to love and to follow Jesus even if it exposes us to hostility that causes internal agony.

In the face of such overwhelming feelings, how is it possible to live this way? Brent Curtis adds this reflection: "How many losses can a heart take? If we deny the wounds or try to minimize them, we deny a part of our heart and end up living a shallow optimism that frequently becomes a demand that the world be better than it is. On the other hand if we embrace the Arrows as the final world on life, we despair, which is another way to lose heart. To lose hope has the same effect on our heart as it would be to stop breathing. If only there were someone to help us reconcile our deepest longings with our greatest fears."

There is someone. How is it that we can move through difficult emotions? By fixing our eyes on Jesus. By looking into his soul. By considering Jesus. By learning from his example. What do we learn? We learn that the life of faith can be hard - seemingly impossibly hard. It was for Jesus. But we also learn that joy is set before us. Just as the race is set before us, so is joy. Just as Jesus took his seat on a throne at the right hand of the Father, so will we (Revelation 3:21, 22:5). Our destiny as men and women - to see God face to face and reign with him forever over the new and better creation - will be fulfilled. Our relationships with each other, without sin, will be open, invigorating and purposeful. We'll have relationships without the problems, and every relationship will be better than the best marriage. All this is the joy set before us. And all this motivates us to run with endurance and to not be deterred by the hostility of others or feelings that would otherwise entangle us.

The race that Jesus ran assures us that the race has a destination, that we are not just running in circles. The life that he led, and his ensuing enthronement, shows us that faith has a reward. It shows us that the good guys really do win in the end. It shows us that joy will triumph over sadness. It shows us that there is still a place for heroes, and for those who wish to live heroically.

They will run and not get tired

Picture the scene. The writer of Hebrews paints the picture for us, so we can do this. You're in the stadium, running the race. It's been a hard race, and you're exhausted. The stands are filled with the likes of Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Rahab and countless others. When they see you, all of them cheer you on. You draw strength from their encouragement, and you keep moving forward.

In the distance, you see another figure - one who's not seated in the stands with the other veterans, but one who's waiting at what looks to be the finish line. There is a finish line! As you keep running, you see him more clearly - so clearly that you can somehow look into his soul. This one, you know, is like no other. No one has run the race like he. As deafening as the crows noise is, you hear his voice above all others. Cheers and encouragement pour out from his soul, from the race he ran. You decide you want to fix your eyes on him. The race is still hard; maybe it's even harder than ever, but there's something about that guy at the finish line. You sense that when you get to where he is, all will be well, and that you will know joy as you never have. As you get closer, you can't wait to see his face.

Finally, you cross the finish line and collapse into his arms. He embraces you. Now he fixes his eyes on you. He says, "I've been waiting for this day since before time began. I've been waiting for you since before time began. I'm so pleased with you. You ran so well. Let me tell you about my kingdom. I want to share it with you. Let me show you around. ... "

Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the Lord
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

- SCG, 10-4-98