Running with the Witnesses
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 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, 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. (Hebrews 11:39–12:2)
The book of Hebrews was written to a church that was getting old and was settling into the world and losing its wartime mentality and starting to drift through life without focus, without vigilance, and without energy. Their hands were growing weak, their knees were feeble. It was just easier to meander in the crowd of life than to run the marathon.
We have seen this over and over along the trail through this book. For example, in Hebrews 2:1 and 3, the writer says that “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. . . . How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” So into the church has crept the disease of drifting and neglecting. People are growing careless, spiritually lazy, and negligent.
Then, in Hebrews 3:12–13, he warns again:
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
He has heard that some are no longer “taking care.” They have begun to have a kind of lazy sense of security. A false notion that nothing really huge is at stake in their small group meetings or whether they meditate on the Bible or take time alone to pray or fight sin. They assume all will be well. Hebrews is written to teach them otherwise.
In Hebrews 5:12, the writer says,
Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
They made a profession of faith and went into a passive, coasting mode. This is utterly wrong. God means every saint to be moving forward to new gains of strength and wisdom and holiness and courage and joy — from getters to givers, from being taught to teaching.
One more illustration: in Hebrews 12:12-13 the writer says,
Strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
He is talking in images here of their spiritual condition: weak hands, feeble knees, crooked paths.
Lay Aside Every Encumbrance
That’s the condition of the church. That is the background of Hebrews 12:1b, “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.” This command does not come out of the blue.
“Fight the fight of faith on the basis of Christ’s spectacular death and resurrection.”
This is the point of the whole book. Endure, persevere, run, fight, be alert, be strengthened, don’t drift, don’t neglect, don’t be sluggish, don’t take your eternal security for granted. Fight the fight of faith on the basis of Christ’s spectacular death and resurrection. And show your faith the way the saints of Hebrews 11 did, not by coasting through life, but by counting reproach for Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (Hebrews 11:26).
So the main point of this text is the one imperative: run! (Hebrews 12:1). Everything else supports this — explains it or gives motivation for it. Run the race set before you! Don’t stroll, don’t meander, don’t wander about aimlessly. Run as in a race with a finish line and with everything hanging on it.
To this end, verse 1 says, “lay aside every encumbrance, and sin which so easily entangles us.” I remember the effect this verse had on me as a boy when I heard someone explain that we must lay aside not only entangling sins, but “every encumbrance,” that is, every weight or obstacle — things that in themselves may not be sins.
This was revolutionary. What it did (and I hope it does the same for you) was show me that the fight of faith — the race of the Christian life — is not fought well or run well by asking, “what’s wrong with this or that?” but by asking, “Is it in the way of greater faith and greater love and greater purity and greater courage and greater humility and greater patience and greater self-control?” Not, “Is it a sin?” but, “Does it help me run? Is it in the way?”
As a boy, I was mightily helped by having my very categories changed in the way I lived my life. I commend it to you young people especially. Don’t ask about your music, your movies, your parties, your habits: What’s wrong with it? Ask: Does it help me run the race? Does it help me run for Jesus?
Hebrews 12:1 is a command to look at your life, think hard about what you are doing, and get ruthless about what stays and what goes.
“But That’s Just the Way I Am”
One of the criticisms I have of some forms of psychology (not all) is the tendency to neutralize texts like this by labeling people with personality types that have no value judgments attached. For example, if a person tends to be passive you give them one label, and if they tend to be aggressive, you give them another label. No type is better than another type.
Then along comes a text like this which says that passivity and coasting and drifting are mortally dangerous. The race might not be finished if we don’t become vigilant and lay aside not only sins, but also weights and hindrances. If we are not careful, we can be so psychologically fatalistic that we read over a text like this and say, “Oh that’s not for me, that’s for type A people, or INTJs.” That would be a tragic mistake.
I know that there are personality differences, some more passive and some more aggressive. Each has its weaknesses and strengths. The passive people are in danger of coasting and neglecting and drifting and the many enslavements that result. The aggressive people are in danger of impatience and self-reliance and judgmentalism. And there are strengths: the passive people are less prone to murmur, complain, and retaliate. And the aggressive people are more given to bring about needed change.
But when it comes to the book of Hebrews, and Hebrews 12:1 in particular, it is a great mistake for any of us to say: this command to run is not for me. This command to lay aside entangling sins is not for me. Or this command to lay aside weights and encumbrances is just not the way I am wired.
Plan Your Run
Rather, all of us should listen and obey. Here’s what I would suggest. Between now and Labor Day, pick a day or a half day and get away by yourself — away from the house, the phone, the beeper, the TV, the radio, and all other people. Take a Bible and a pad of paper and plan your fall run with Jesus.
On that pad of paper, note the entangling sins. Note the seemingly innocent weights and encumbrances that are not explicitly condemned in the Bible, but which you know are holding you back in the race for faith and love and strength and holiness and courage and freedom. Note the ways you subtly make provision for these hindrances (Romans 13:14): the computer games, the hidden alcohol or candy, the television, the videos, the pull-tab stop on the way home, the magazines, the novels. In addition, note the people that weaken you. Note the times that are wasted, thrown away.
“God has not spoken his commands for nothing.”
When you have made all these notations, pray your way through to a resolve and a pattern of dismantling these encumbrances, and resisting these sins, and breaking old, old habits. And don’t rise up against the Bible at this point and say, “I can’t change.” It is an assault on God if you read Hebrews 12:1 and go away saying: “It can’t happen. Hindrances can’t be removed. Sins can’t be laid aside.” God has not spoken this command for nothing. And this entire book is written to undergird these practical commands.
So go back and read the book and ask God to take all the glorious truth that is here — about the superiority of Christ, and the power of his death and resurrection, and the effectiveness of his intercession for you — and make this truth explosive with life-changing power. Carry some of the story to your small group and get them to pray for you. Find someone you trust and ask them to check in with you and support you. That is what Hebrews 3:12–13 says we should do. Don’t drift from this moment into this Sunday afternoon. Before this day is over choose a day or a half-day and get away to plan your fall run with Jesus.
Motivations to Run
Now, what about motivation? That’s what the rest of this text is. First, let’s look back and then forward from this command to run.
1. A cloud of witnesses surrounds us.
Verse 1 says, “Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us . . . run.” So the first motivation I want us to see is this cloud of witnesses. Who are they and what does their witnessing mean? They are the saints that have lived and died so valiantly by faith in chapter 11. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and all those who suffered and died, “of whom the world was not worthy.”
But what does their “witnessing” refer to? Does it refer to their watching us from heaven? Or does it refer their witnessing to us by their lives? The word “witness” can have either meaning: the act of seeing something, or the act of telling something. Which is it here? I think it is the act of telling. The verb form of this word “witness” (martureo) is used five times in Hebrews 11 (in verses 2, 4 [twice], 5, 39) and always refers to the giving of a (confirming) testimony rather than the mere watching of an event.
So I take the witnesses of Hebrews 12:1 to be the saints who have run the race before us, and have gathered, as it were, along the marathon route to say, through the testimony of their lives, “By faith I finished, you can too!”
The best way to illustrate this, I think, is with Hebrews 11:4, where the writer speaks of Abel and says, “Through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” So Abel is in the cloud of witnesses, and he is witnessing to us by his life through the Scriptures. This is the way all the witnesses of Hebrews 11 are helping us. They have gathered along the sidelines of our race and they hold out their wounds and their joys and give us the best high-fives we ever got: “Go for it! You can do it. By faith, you can finish. You can lay the weights down and the sins. By faith, by the assurance of better things hoped for, you can do it. I did it. And I know it can be done. Run. Run!”
So be encouraged when you plan your fall run with Jesus. There are dozens and hundreds and thousands of those who have gone before and who have finished the race by faith and surround us like a great cloud of witnesses who say: “It can be done! By faith, it can be done.”
2. History is waiting for you.
Then there is another motivation in verses 39–40. It says,
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
This is followed in 12:1 by “Therefore . . . run.” The “therefore” means that verses 39–40 are a motivation for our running. Since this is true, run! How is it a motivation?
“We all come into the fullness of our inheritance together.”
I take verse 39 to mean that when the believers in the Old Testament died, their spirits were made whole and perfect (as Hebrews 12:23 says), but that they do not receive the full blessing of God’s promise, which is resurrection with new bodies in a glorious new age with all God’s enemies removed and righteousness holding sway and the earth filled with the glory of God. They did not receive that promise yet.
Why not? Why must the saints wait, without their new resurrection bodies? The answer is given in verse 40: “Because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” In other words, God’s purpose is that all his people — all the redeemed — be gathered in before any of them enjoys the fullness of his promise. His purpose is that we all come into the fullness of our inheritance together.
So the motivation is this: when you go away to plan your fall run with Jesus, think on the fact that your life counts to God and to them. Your finishing the race is what history is waiting for. The entire consummation of the plan of the universe waits until every single one of God’s elect are gathered in. All history waits and all those who have lived by faith crowd the marathon route to urge you on, because they will not be perfected without you. Nor you without them.
3. Jesus creates and perfects our faith.
Perhaps two more very brief motivations from Hebrews 12:2. The first is that the fight of faith is not done in our own strength. When you go away to plan your fall run with Jesus, verse 2 says, “Look to Jesus the author and perfecter of your faith.” Don’t look to your own resources and say, “I’ve tried before. It won’t work.” Fix your eyes on him. The battle is a battle of faith: will you believe that the things he promises are better than the bad habits that you use to cover your sadness?
But more than that, Jesus doesn’t just respond to faith with his help. He works to author faith and perfect faith. He works to begin it and he works to complete it. Faith lays hold on Jesus for help, because Jesus laid hold on the heart for faith. Hebrews 13:21 says that God works in us what is pleasing in his sight through Jesus. He is the author and the perfecter of our faith and we should sit with our Bible and our tablet in the park overwhelmed with the stunning truth that, behind every good resolve and plan of attack for this fall, God is at work in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12–13) — to sustain and perfect our faith.
4. We will experience the joy of triumph at the end.
Finally, this writer wants us to be motivated to endure in our run with Jesus this fall the same way Jesus was sustained in his painful run. Continue in verse 2: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” It is not a morally defective thing to be sustained in the marathon of life by the joy of triumph at the end. The reward of seeing God and being free from all sin is the greatest incentive of all.
“The reward of seeing God is the greatest incentive of all.”
So if it seems that there are going to be some temporary losses when you run this race with Jesus, you are right. That is why Jesus said to count the cost (Luke 14:25–33) before you sign on. But the marathon of the Christian life is not mainly loss. It is mainly gain. “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” It is only a matter of timing. If you see things with the eyes of God, there is a vapor’s breath of loss and pain, and then everlasting joy (2 Corinthians 4:17).
When you take your day away, with Bible and tablet, to plan your fall run with Jesus, think on this, think on this: “the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to the children of God” (Romans 8:18).
So, let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin, which so easily entangles us, and let us run with Jesus.