Summary: In Hebrews 12:1–3. we see various aspects of the race, as they are compared to the faithful life in Christ. Christ calls us to 1) Race Freely (Hebrews 12:1), 2) Race Focused (Hebrews 12:2), and 3) Race to the Finish (Hebrews 12:3)
In the ancient Isthmian games of Greece, a pedestal stood at the finish line, and on it hung a wreath—the winner’s prize. No one runs a race without some expectation of reward. The reward may be nothing more than a ribbon or a trophy or a wreath of leaves. It may be a prize worth a large amount of money. Sometimes the reward is fame and recognition. Sometimes it is a healthy body. Occasionally the race is run for the sheer exhilaration.
The Isthmian races and the race spoken of in Hebrews 12, however, were not run for exhilaration. This type of race is the agōn, the agony race, the marathon, the race that seems never to end. It is not a race you run simply for the pleasure of running. If you do not have something important to look forward to at the end of this race, you will likely not start it and will certainly not finish it.
It’s not uncommon for us to talk about the rat race, or it seems like we’re just running on a treadmill, going nowhere. In the last part of the epistle the writer is speaking to believers of the peril of remaining stationary. He is saying, “Let’s get into the race. Let’s get moving and not just drift along. We are racers.” I would say that one of the greatest dangers in the Christian life is the peril of just remaining stationary, of doing nothing (McGee, J. V. (1991). Thru the Bible commentary: The Epistles (Hebrews 8-13) (electronic ed., Vol. 52, p. 111). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.).
In Hebrews 12:1–3. we see various aspects of the race, as they are compared to the faithful life in Christ. Christ calls us to 1) Race Freely (Hebrews 12:1), 2) Race Focused (Hebrews 12:2), and 3) Race to the Finish (Hebrews 12:3)
1) Race Freely (Hebrews 12:1)
Hebrews 12:1 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)
We are all creatures of motivation. We need a reason for doing things and we need encouragement while we are doing them. One of the greatest motivations and encouragements to the unbelieving Jews, as well as to Christians, would be all the great believers from the past, their heroes, who lived the life of faith. This cloud of witnesses refers, of course, to the heroes of the faith presented in chapter 11: Noah, Abraham, Moses… the writer of Hebrews does not see these as dead men to be remembered, but living witnesses to be heard.( Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (p. 529). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.)
• Do we read their accounts and dismiss it as another time, or that they had different resources? Yet they had less light to run by than we have. We have the Holy Spirit resident within us, live in a country with relative safety, great resources, access to an unending supply of theological and people resources. If they accomplished what they did with what they had, what can we accomplish if we run the race?
We are to run the race of faith like they did, always trusting, never giving up, no matter what the obstacles or hardships or cost. They knew how to run the race of faith. By their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith. It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement. They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God; they were, in a manner of speaking, witnesses to Christ before his incarnation, for they lived in the good of that promise which has been realized in him. (Bruce, F. F. (1990). The Epistle to the Hebrews (Rev. ed., p. 333). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
The cloud of witnesses described here as “surrounding us” is not standing in the galleries of heaven watching as we perform. The idea here is not that we should be faithful lest they be disappointed, or that we should try to impress them like a sports team trying to impress the fans in the bleachers. These are witnesses to God, not of us. They are examples, not onlookers. They have proved by their testimony, their witness, that the life of faith is the only life to live. To have a whole gallery of such great people looking down on us would not motivate us but paralyze us. In the NT, however, a witness is never merely a passive spectator but an active participant who confirms and attests the truth as a confessing witness (cf. Riggenbach, 385; Michel, 427, 3, 428; Peterson, “Examination,” 294). The tendency to associate “witness” with martyrdom is strengthened by the account of the martyred and persecuted exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11:35b–38 (Lane, W. L. (1998). Hebrews 9–13 (Vol. 47B, p. 408). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.).