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Rev. Dennis Lee, pastor of Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan

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. Hebrews 12:1-2

Are you an active, vibrant, and energetic Christian? Are you a single-minded, whole-hearted believer living in devotion to God, or are you for some reason not functioning as fully as you could as a believer? Are you exerting yourself in the principal commandment of true religion, which is love? Utmost love! You and I are called to exert ourselves in fullness of love unto our God and our neighbor, at every point in time and in every season of life. These verses lay that calling upon us. Run! Not walk, not jog, but run! Run the race! By the power of grace working in you, exert yourself in fullness for the Lord. That is the calling of these verses—your calling and mine.

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Every believer is called by God to run the race of the Christian life. And that is no easy calling! The Word of God is, of course, using the familiar earthly analogy of physical running to describe the Christian’s calling to live each and every day of his life trusting God, loving Him, and therefore obeying Him in everything and submitting to all of His providential rule of our lives. This spiritual “race” we have been called to “run” is lifelong. There is no retirement from Christian living. Whether we are as young as little children or as old as dying Jacob who, leaning upon the top of his staff, worshiped God and blessed the sons of Joseph with his last ounce of energy, we are called by God to run the race our entire lives. This race is much more like a marathon than a short sprint or a mile run, and that makes it difficult!

That being the case, we do well to understand more details about running this spiritual race. Where did we start and where do we finish this race? This race started at our regeneration. We began running this race when we were given new life in Christ. And this race finishes either when Christ comes again or when we die, which ever comes sooner. The aged apostle Paul thought of the latter when he wrote under inspiration: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day…” (II Tim. 4:7-8). The “course” the apostle referred to was the path of his life. His race was long and difficult, and he experienced many sufferings, especially during his missionary journeys.

While different, our course of life is not so unlike the apostle’s, is it, dear reader? It has its twists and turns, its joys and sorrows, its highs and lows—lows that can stretch for months and years, and can be so agonizing! Agonizing! Agony! That is the exact word in the original for the word “race.” The race we are called to run is agonizing! To be sure, unbelievers go through very similar challenging and troubling life events as we do, including the very tough ones. But for believers, we are called to go through them by faith! We are to trust God fully! This course of life and spiritual racetrack is the Christian life! We are called to live in relation to all that comes upon us by faith. It is a life of conscious faith that enjoins us to a trusting, loving, and cheerful submission in relation to all and everything that comes our way in life, as well as a heartfelt obedience to all and everything God tells us to do in His Word. All and everything! From this description of what running the race involves, we see even more clearly that we have a difficult calling.

But the difficulty of our calling becomes even more vivid when we consider the reality of the lives of some of the saints who took this calling seriously.

The inspired apostle was writing to a very discouraged group of Jewish Christians. Towards the end of Hebrews 10, he told them to “call to remembrance the former days…[when they had] endured a great fight of afflictions” (v. 32). For living and testifying unashamedly of their Lord, they had endured many fierce persecutions. They had endured mockery. They had endured their property being damaged, their businesses being shut down. They had endured being ‘canceled.’ And they had stood strong! But now, when fresh persecutions came their way, they became discouraged and were sorely tempted to give up on their faith (vv. 38-39). They had need of endurance (v. 36)! How difficult it was for them to continue running the race!

Nor was it any easier for the Old Testament heroes of faith set forth in Hebrews 11. Some of the sufferings they endured on account of their faith included being tortured (v. 35), “stoned, sawn asunder…slain with the sword… being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” (v. 37).

Perhaps we have not suffered the same kind and measure of sufferings as these saints. But who knows what tomorrow brings when it comes to the course of life ahead of us?

And now, consider two more difficulties or dangers that can slow us down and, very really, even threaten to stop us from finishing the race. They are weights and entanglements: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [entangle] us.Weights are objects or activities in our lives that are not necessarily sinful in and of themselves, but greatly slow us down and hinder our calling to live in fullness unto God. Some common ‘weights’ slowing down the twenty-first century believer include electronic devices, gaming, hunting, and playing or watching sports. Dear reader, are there ‘weights’ in your life? On what are you habitually spending an inordinate amount of time? You could have used all of that time on activities that are truly important and of heavenly and eternal value! We are called to “lay aside every weight.” The same could be said about ‘entanglements,’ which are worse than weights because, unlike weights, they are most certainly sinful things. Sin has a way of entangling and stopping us from running the race. Sin trips us up and causes us to stumble and fall. If we are serious about our calling to run the race, we must endeavor to identify and remove every entanglement and weight in our lives. Will you?

That is the calling of running the race set forth in these verses. How difficult it is! So much effort is required of us, so much care to be taken on the course with all its hindrances slowing us down and dangers threatening us. This is truly an agonizing race when you consider all its dangers, difficulties, and discouragements. And it is always there every day waiting for us to run! Who of us will not feel weary and tempted to stop running the race?

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Our compassionate Savior knows and understands the very feeling of our infirmities and provides us with many blessed encouragements! Two of them are set forth in these verses.

First, there is the blessed encouragement from the “great cloud of witnesses” (v. 1). The reference here is to all the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. We know that because the word “wherefore” that begins chapter 12:1 connects it with all of chapter 11, so that the verses we are considering form the grand conclusion to all the wonderful lives and deeds of the heroes of faith.

Through the word “cloud” we see a figure. We see a big, beautiful stadium packed with seats going all around and high up—seemingly into the clouds! Who are seated on those rows and rows of seats but the Old Testament heroes of faith—named and unnamed—of Hebrews 11? To be sure, the reality is not that they are spectators watching us run. We know this because they are “witnesses”—not spectators but witnesses. And witnesses testify. They testify of their lives of faith. They testify of their sufferings and struggles. Most of all, they testify of the unfailing faithfulness of God throughout their lives. How we can learn from them! We can be encouraged that we are not alone in our struggles. These witnesses tell us in Scripture that God was with them! Do we pay attention to what they say in Scripture, and therefore do we know that He is also with us in our struggles?

Second and even more, we receive a great and blessed encouragement from Jesus Himself who also ran a race! However, quite unlike us, He ran it perfectly— with perfect endurance, with zero weights and entanglements, and most importantly, for our sake. He had a far more difficult race than ours, for His began at His incarnation and continued all the way to His accursed death on the cross. There, He who bore our sins especially suffered the punishment and agonies of hell that we deserved! Have you considered and do you know something of the great and many sufferings your sins and mine brought upon Jesus? Who can understand the greatness of Christ’s sufferings for us? Let us take encouragement from this blessed and gracious truth!

And let us also take encouragement and learn from the way our Savior ran His race. He ran with perfect focus and determination! He knew Father’s mission and will for Him, and He was perfectly focused on it all His life. He ran undeterred towards the cross to save us and was not discouraged by pain, sorrow, or shame! The divine Son of God endured great and terrible shame at the hands of sinful men as He descended from heaven to earth, ran at full speed toward the cross, and there especially suffered for us to save us from our sins! What explains such focus and determination? The explanation lies in where His spiritual eyes were focused. They were fixed and focused on the prize awaiting Him at the finish line—His blessed reward of exaltation, that of being “set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 2). That was the joy continually set before Him, the joy of receiving that reward He would earn by completing His course at the finish line of His race. What great joy that is! Because of that joy, and because He kept His eyes focused on it and not on any discouragement or distraction, He despised the shame, endured the cross, finished His race, and obtained sweet and complete victory for us!

This too is how we must run our race. We too need to have our eyes fixed on the gracious prize earned for us by Jesus, and not on any discouragement or distraction. Like the apostle Paul, we need to have our eyes fixed on the gracious reward awaiting us at the finishing line, that crown of righteousness (II Tim. 4:8). Like Jesus, we are to embrace our marvelous and gracious reward with joy. In this way, Christ is not only our great encouragement, but also our chief and perfect example in the running of our race.

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And finally, He is also our only source of strength! Christ is truly the all in all of those who belong to Him! This is why we are told to look to Jesus and no one else, who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. If we look elsewhere for our strength, we will be weary and fall. Jesus is our only and complete source of strength. With Him as our source of strength we have no need for any other! For He is the Author of our faith: He created it, and it was He who joined us to Himself by the bond of faith! And He is also the Finisher or Perfecter of our faith, that is, the One who realizes the goal of our faith. He does so by supplying us the spiritual focus and strength we need each day to run our race. So look to no other but Jesus for all you need, and run the race!