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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” – Hebrews 12:1
You’re Not Alone
Has anyone ever cheered for you? It makes a difference, doesn’t it?
My life was strongly shaped by the experience of playing high school football: I learned a great deal about discipline and teamwork – as well as about having dreams and dealing with reality.
In practice, we spent a lot of time running wind sprints and other drills. To this day, I can hear the coaches shouting “Run hard! Run hard!” When we grew tired or weary, they would yell “Suck it up and go!”
On Friday nights, we learned the value of our hard work as we competed before a great crowd of witnesses – including many former players who understood the game – giving our best efforts to win each game.
I recall those sweaty days and sometimes painful nights when I read this exhortation from the author of Hebrews:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
To whom was the author writing? Why were they running, and how?
A race of faith(11:29-40)
The book of Hebrews can be read as a lengthy sermon. It was written for the benefit of a Christian community, most of whose members were probably born Jewish. Some believers were growing in their faith, while others were struggling. Living as a Christian under first-century Roman rule was not a piece of cake, and some were tempted to turn back from the faith.
The author of Hebrews urged his readers to never give up, never stop growing, never stop struggling to become all that God wanted them to be. Like my high school coaches, he exhorted them to “Run hard!”
The writer offered encouragement by recalling a string of Hebrew heroes who had demonstrated faith. He began with Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah (11:4-19), arguing that they all lived in faith while looking forward to a future inheritance.
He continued with further stories of the patriarchs. It was by faith that Isaac invoked future blessings on his sons Jacob and Esau, he said (v. 20); by faith that Jacob blessed his 12 sons from his deathbed (v. 21); and by faith that Joseph saw the end of the exile and asked to be buried in the land of promise (v. 22).
Moses’ parents showed faith in preserving his life, while Moses himself demonstrated faith as he chose to align himself with God’s oppressed people rather than to live in luxury as an Egyptian (vv. 23-28).
Today’s text begins with v. 29, which recalls how Moses and the people of Israel showed faith in crossing the sea on dry land as they escaped from Egypt (v. 29). Later, the people saw Jericho fall after obeying God’s surprising command to march around the city for seven days (v. 30).
The first solo woman to make the list was Rahab, a native of Jericho who chose to put her faith in the God of Israel, hiding spies sent by Joshua and allying with the Hebrews rather than her Canaanite compatriots (v. 31).
With v. 32, the writer shifted from individuals to groups. “Time would fail me,” he said, “to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign enemies to flight” (vv. 32-34). In addition to the named characters, the references to escaping lions and fire recall stories of Daniel and his three faithful colleagues (Daniel 3, 6).
Nameless but faithful women came to the author’s mind with the mention of women who “received their dead back by resurrection” (v. 35a), a probable reference to the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17:17-24) and the woman of Shunem (2 Kgs. 4:18-37). Both saw their dead sons raised to life after the intercessions of Elijah and Elisha, respectively.
The persons mentioned to this point gained victories or deliverance, but with vv. 35a-38, the author turns to praise others who suffered without victory, but did not lose faith. Those who “were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to gain a better reward” probably refers to a story from the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, which tells of an aged priest named Eleazar who willingly died on the rack rather than eat meat from a sow sacrificed before an idol during the cruel reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc. 6:18-31). A mother and her seven sons also refused to eat the sacrificial pork, according to the story, suffering barbarous torture before death (2 Macc. 7:1-42).
The reference to persons being mocked, flogged, or faced with imprisonment could apply to many situations, including prophets such as Jeremiah (Jer. 20:2, 7; 29:26; 37:15). Jewish traditions accorded other prophets the fate of having been stoned to death, sawn in two, or forced to live in poverty in desolate places.
Though “commended for their faith,” the author said, these “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (vv. 39-40). The implication is that heroes of the past died in faith, looking toward a future resurrection that would not be fulfilled until the coming of Christ, a better hope than even they imagined. In this way, God’s saving work would bring the faithful people of the past, present, and future together.
A cloud of witnesses(12:1-3)
The extended catalog of the faithful in Hebrews 11 serves as a rhetorical prelude to the next chapter, for the writer wanted his struggling readers to know that they were not alone: the saints of the past and the saints of the present were watching. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us …” (12:1).
As athletes who play popular sports may compete before a host of fans, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that our daily walk takes place before a cloud of witnesses. As we take courage from saints past and present, we are challenged to do two things. The first thing is to lighten the load. When we have to run a long distance, we don’t carry a backpack, dress in bulky clothes, or wear heavy shoes.
The weight we are to discard for the Christian race is “the sin that so easily besets us.” We don’t need a theologian to tell us what that means. Pride. Selfishness. Discord. Self-destructive behavior. Hurtful words. Exploitation of others. Apathy. Meanness. Gossip. Anything that causes harm to another. “Everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” as the NIV11 puts it.
We cannot hold on to our selfish behavior and run this race any more than we could win a marathon with a sack of potatoes on our back. The first thing is to throw off what slows us down.
The second thing is to run persistently. The course ahead is beset with obstacles, problems, and distractions that make progress difficult. So, we must “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” willing to continue steadfast even in the face of metaphorical mud holes that set us back or tempt us to leave the path. It is the willingness to keep running even when we know the path ahead is uphill. It is a willingness to keep on running even when it hurts – as my coach used to say, to “suck it up and go.”
The race we run in Christ’s name can be a joyful race, but not always an easy one. Times of temptation and trial will come, but because God’s faithful saints through the ages are cheering us on, we do our best. Because we are surrounded by a world that is desperate for God’s love, we run with determination, and we run hard.
We cannot see the whole course or know every place the track will lead, but we run while “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy thatwas set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
The author carefully refers to “Jesus” rather than “Christ” because he wants us to recall Jesus’ earthly life, the trials he faced, and his willingness to suffer the cross “for the sake of the joy that was set before him,” that is, the prospect of sitting at the right hand of God.
Rather than dwelling on our trials and hardships, we look to the example of Jesus, who pioneered and perfected the kind of persevering faith we are called to emulate. Jesus endured not only the ordinary struggles of life, but also hostility from a sinful world. As we consider Jesus and the road he traveled, we are less likely to “grow weary or lose heart” (12:3).
When we run faithfully, not entangled by sin but encouraged by Jesus and a great cloud of witnesses who know what faith means, we can run hard, and run with perseverance, and be assured that we will stay on track until we take our place among those who will cheer on future generations of believers.
Isn’t that worth running for? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for August 14, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
You don’t have to go at this parenting thing alone. Yes, last week you were reminded that you have the greatest influence of your child’s faith, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be their own influence. As people have studied and interviewed youth about their faith, they have found that students need at least six adults in their life, other than you, to help them grow in their faith. These six people don’t have to be involved everyday, or even every month, but they do have to acknowledge their place in your child’s life. Surround your child with people that will love them and care for them, that will be there when you can’t, that can hold them up when they need someone to lean on. You don’t have to do this alone. Surround them with people of faith.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Raptors vs. Indominus” from Jurassic World via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 11:29-12:2