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.
No one reading this text in its context can escape the conclusion that there is a very close connection to what the writer to the Hebrews had written in the preceding chapter. This is indicated, first of all, by the very first word in the text. The word “wherefore,” or as we prefer to translate it, “consequently then,” signifies a conclusion, that which is drawn from something that precedes. It affirms, establishes the preceding, and deduces from it a conclusion. In the preceding chapter the various heroes of faith and their acts are described. From their descriptions the writer to the Hebrews now deduces what our calling and walk must be. In the second place, this close relationship is indicated in the expression, “seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” This cloud of witnesses can be none other than the heroes of faith described in the preceding chapter. Here the attempt is made to line up the Hebrew Christians, the church of Christ in the world, alongside all the glorious believers of the past—our faith, our strength, our conflict, and our crown, all being the same with them.
All this, along with the rest of our text, is written with a view to quickening the believing church, you and me, believing children of God, for the spiritual contest in the arena of life.
Scripture often chooses to describe the Christian life in the figure of a contest and contestants. Paul, for example, tells us that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph. 6:12). In his own case, he informs us that he had fought a good fight, and finished his course; he had kept the faith, and therefore awaited the crown. (I Tim. 4:7).
So also in our text is suggested the figure of an arena in which contests are held, in which contestants vie with one another to obtain a victor’s crown.
Whoever the writer to the Hebrews was, he must certainly have been acquainted with the Grecian games, with a large arena or stadium in the center of which were the athletes, whether they were wrestlers, pugilists, runners, or any others who were trained for athletic feats. Around the arena, on all sides, row upon row, sat the spectators, looking down from all sides upon the athletes, ready to cheer or boo, all depending on whether the athletes performed well or badly. But there was also the judge, seated in such a place where he could fairly determine whether the contest was performed according to the rules, and where he would place the wreath of victory on the head of the winner.
Notice how these various elements which describe any athletic contest are enumerated in the text. It speaks of the athlete. Apparently he is a runner in a race. Such a runner will first undergo intensive training. One does not run in a race who has not first of all fully prepared himself, getting off all excessive fat by proper diet and strenuous exercise. Each day, and perhaps several times in a day, he exercises proper breathing, taking long sprints. And when he is ready to run he stretches every muscle, striving with great endurance, suffering no impediments that can retard his progress. Also the text speaks of witnesses. This is not to be understood as mere spectators in the stadium, but in the most literal sense-witnesses who, by their testimony, encourage the athlete. As you will see, these witnesses are themselves former athletes who have run, wrestled, fought in the arena and were declared victors. And last, but not least, the text also speaks of the judge, who is enthroned higher than all, who by his position is an incentive, and gives power to the athlete, and finally also presents the awards to those who performed victoriously.
As was said, all this presents figuratively the reality of the Christian life.
The Christian is precisely such a wrestler, pugilist, or runner in a race. He wrestles not with flesh and blood, to be sure, but against the spiritual powers and principalities in high places. When he fights, he keeps his body in subjection, and learns not to beat the air, but to strike the opponent with blows that will beat him to the canvas. When he runs in the race, he stretches every spiritual muscle to attain to the prize. The race, according to the text, may be conceived of as an obstacle race, where various objects are set in the path of the runner, with which he must cope, which he must hurdle, which he must overcome to be successful in the race. The Christian race is not set on an even course. Rather there are obstacles that must be overcome. The text speaks of every weight which must be laid aside, and explains these weights as being sins which easily beset us. There is much, therefore, that stands in his way, much that will make running most difficult. And in the arena of life the Christian may hear the testimony of the great cloud of witnesses to encourage him in his running. O, to be sure, these witnesses are not the spectators one will find in the common arena. They do not literally sit along the runway to observe our running. They are all in heaven, far removed from the present scene. But they still speak. Of the heroism of their faith they still testify. Listen to them! There is the witness of Abel, who by faith brought a better sacrifice than Cain. There is the witness of Enoch, who by faith witnessed against a wicked generation, and was not, for the Lord took him. There was Noah, who by faith overcame the world, and perished not in the deluge, but was saved by the waters of the flood. There was Abraham, who by faith offered his only son, believing that God was able to raise him from the dead. There was Jacob, who all his life long struggled with his own sinful nature, and finally struggled by faith with weeping and supplication to victory with God. There was Joseph, who endured by faith much affliction, and in his death gave commandments concerning his bones. There was Moses, who by faith refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, because he had his eye on the reward.
O, the list goes on, and includes a multitude of witnesses, a list so great that the writer to the Hebrews ceases to mention them all by name, and informs us that in the host are included those who quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens . . . they were stoned, they were sawn asunder were tempted, were slain with the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins and goat skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented. All these obtained a good report through faith and their witness still speaks.
Indeed, a host of faithful witnesses!
Of witnesses who still testify of their faith!
These by their witness still surround the arena of life in which the Christian runs by faith, and we hear their testimony which must quicken our pace, and encourage our spirits.
Of course, as in any athletic contest, so in the arena of life, the race course is not of the runner’s choosing. It is laid out for him, and he is expected to run not anywhere or everywhere, but on the course laid out for him. In the arena of life the Christian does not determine where and how he shall run, but the Lord Himself determines this. It is He Who lays out the course, and predestines the outcome of the race. This is implied in the text when it speaks of the race set before us. And it is He Who exhorts us to run. The matter of running or not running is not left up to us. It is He Who determines the course, and it is He Who calls us to run.
As to the manner of running, the text suggests both negative and positive aspects. We are to lay aside every weight. As we said, the text tells us what is signified by these weights. They are the sins which so easily beset us. We may suffer no encumbrances to impede our running, least of all, our besetting sins. In the race to heaven you cannot carry along the burden of your sin. The sin burden must be seriously and properly dealt with. We shall see in a moment how this is to be done. And positively we are to run through patience. Literally the text says: “through patience let us strive hard to perform the contest lying before us.” Patience is that virtue, that grace, that spiritual power and ability to bear up under the most extenuating circumstances, and to remain standing. In the Christian race you cannot elude the obstacles, but you are required to bear up under the most oppressing circumstances, while you persistently keep on running.
The way to victory in the race is sure when your eyes are fixed on Jesus, Who is the author and finisher of our faith. Literally the text says: “Looking away,” i.e., turning your eyes away from other things and fixing them on the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus.
On Jesus, Who is Jehovah, the God of our salvation, manifested!
Who is the author and finisher of our faith!
Our faith has its beginning and end, its origin and fulfillment in Jesus, the God of our salvation. We do not have it of ourselves, nor do we realize it to its perfection of ourselves. Faith is of God. It is His gift of grace. It is He also Who causes faith to work to its end.
The idea of the text is not, as we see it, that Jesus is our example Whom we are to emulate, our predecessor in the race Whom we are to follow. But the text urges us to keep our eye on Jesus from Whom our faith comes, and Who also is the one Who realizes faith in and through us, until it attains to the things hoped for. As we are told earlier in the Epistle (Heb. 11:1), faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Until we see the things not seen, therefore, we must keep our eye on Jesus Who will see to it that we shall have that which eye is not now able to see.
And why is it so important that we keep our eye on Him? Because as Jehovah, the God of our salvation manifested in the flesh, He is set down on the right hand of the throne of God. He there receives the power to apply unto us His saving grace, to implant saving faith in our hearts, to build up and strengthen that faith that it may endure to the end and be crowned with the victor’s crown. And how did Jesus receive that power? For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame, and is therefore as a reward of merit set down at the right hand of the throne of God, where all power in heaven and on earth is given unto Him as the Savior of His people to save them unto the uttermost. That is the answer.
Look away from yourself, dear runner, and put your eye on Him; and there is no possibility that you shall fail in the race.
Look not to an arm of flesh, nor to your own strength which will always fail. Look not even to the heroes of faith, whose witness you ought to hear, but whose power cannot give you the victory.
Look only to Jesus!
He is not only the author and finisher of your faith, but He is also the author and finisher of your victory.
Look away from yourselves unto Him, you cannot fail in the race!