“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).
In 1 Timothy 4:8 Paul writes, “Bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” This means, that while physical exercise may benefit the body, spiritual exercise is important for the spirit. In a year when the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing is in everyone’s mind, this is an apt text, for the apostle is using the imagery of athletics to reveal the importance of spiritual exercise.
Notice first the word “wherefore”, some translations use “therefore”, for Paul is pointing his readers back to the previous chapter which speaks of the great men and women of faith who stood firm in their conviction. Maybe these are the “great cloud of witnesses”, that is, the example of what true faith is all about. It is almost as though Paul is describing them as spectators encouraging us to endure to the end, “He that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22). Though we ought not to take the analogy literally, because we do not believe that those in Heaven watch what we do on earth, yet these men and women of faith ran the race before us to show that it is possible to win the prize. Best of all, the Great Forerunner has set the pace for us to follow, “Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus” (Hebrews 6:20). We have an inspiring heritage.
Cast off the hindrances
The weights that hinder our progress are the useless things of life and the sins that continue to beset us. Not everything is sinful, but they may not be convenient in our spiritual life. We must not allow our jobs, possessions, hobbies or relationships to cause us to lose sight of what is most important. To use a sporting pun, we must have a one track mind as we run the race of eternal life. We must also cast off, once and for all, the sin that is dear to us, otherwise it will tempt us away from our commitment to Christ, and then we will lose or be disqualified. There is no rule in the Olympic Games against an athlete carrying a picnic with him, but he greatly hinders his chances of winning if he does! We must not allow anyone or anything to hinder us, “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 5:7).
No Christian ought to be on the sidelines watching others running for glory. We must all be in the race together, and the race is not a 100 metre sprint, but a lifelong marathon. “The race is not to the swift” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The Greek word for “race” is “agon”, from where we derive the English word “agony”. This tells us that it is not going to be easy, and there will be many opportunities along the way to give up and throw in the towel. No one said that the Christian life would be easy! In reality we are either advancing or backsliding, and the choice is ours. There are far too many believers who are happy to practice running on the spot, but that is not racing. “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24)
Our focus is not on others running around us, for who is ahead of us or who is behind us in unimportant; instead we most continue to look at Jesus. We can glance at those who have run before (as in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11), but we must gaze at the Lord. This means that we must fix our attention and concentration upon Him alone, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). The men and women of faith, the martyrs, missionaries and preachers are examples for us, but only Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we could follow Him to the reward. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). We must not look back or relax if we are going to be victorious. “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). We will stumble and fall if we take our eyes off Jesus to look at our circumstances, but as we continue to gaze on Him there is no chance of defeat. He alone is “the author and finisher of our faith.”
Many athletes will be telling sports commentators about who they have as their example. They will tell of the many hours practicing, exerting themselves, their dedication and commitment, just to stand on the winners’ podium to receive a medal and honour. Our determination to win must be stronger than theirs. They run for that which is temporal, but we race for that which is eternal. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).