Remember the Cloud of Witnesses (v. 1)
Running before Us
To hear some talk today, we are the first ones who have faced the challenges of an unbelieving and even hostile society. Our generation in particular seems committed to ignoring the past entirely and thinks that we have to reinvent ourselves in order to be relevant. Our spiritual myopia is aggravated by preachers who talk about the Old Testament as if it taught salvation by lawkeeping and holds little value for us today except through moralistic storytelling. “Therefore” opens a door upon a very different Old Testament scene. There is one racecourse of faith. The old covenant saints ran it before us. They had the same promise as us, Jesus Christ and all the blessings of the new covenant. They had the same motivations – resurrection life (11:35; Acts 13:32; 26:6) and life with God forever in his beautiful city. There were differences, of course, for Christ had not yet come. They were kept under the tutelage of outward ceremonies, all of which pointed to Christ, but they were burdens that were difficult to bear (Acts 15:10; Gal. 3:24). Heavenly glories were set forth by more earthly types, such as the land of Canaan, for they were a “church in infancy” and could not see what we now see since Jesus Christ has come. Still, they blazed the trail for us. They ran the same race of faith and have passed the baton to us. This is the reason for “Therefore.” The promised Christ has come, and now we must pick up the baton and run.
Spurring Us to Faithfulness by Their Example
By calling them a “cloud,” the Spirit means that there were many faith runners in those days. He has mentioned only a few of the more notable men and women of faith, for in fact there were a great host that now surround us. “Witness” means more than spectator. A witness is one who testifies to the truth of God’s word, usually with words but also by example and sometimes with his blood. The old covenant saints are a great cloud of witnesses in that they spur us to faithfulness by their example of patient endurance in waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Each one of them says, “God is faithful.” It did not look like there was any way a wooden ark would save God’s promise, or that Sarah would have a child, or that they would be saved from the fiery furnace. God, however, kept his promises – every one of them. Now that the promise has come, the Desire of the nations, the Bread from heaven, the very Son of God, Jesus Christ, you must hold fast to him and trust God to keep his promises. He gave you his Son, he will give you everything else you need for life and godliness (Rom. 8:32).
Watching Us and Incomplete without Us
The imagery here is of an athletic contest (avgw/na) and more specifically of a race we must run. The witnesses are not simply passive spectators, for a witness bears an active testimony to the faithfulness of God and calls us to take him at his word. In one sense, the old covenant saints showed us the way to run by their obedience in great difficulty, steadfastness under pain and suffering, and also in the great things they did for the honor of God. Given the conclusion of 11:40 and the “great cloud surrounding us,” we cannot fail to receive the impression that they in a sense watch us race, for all the saints who have completed their individual portion of the race have a vested interest in our running it well. It would be going too far to say that the saints in heaven are peering over the “edge” and see everything we do, or that their present enjoyment of Christ and heaven depends upon our faithfulness on earth. The Bible does not say this. At the same time, to take another example, when Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, they knew what was about to take place and their preparatory place in God’s great salvation. They came to bear witness to the Christ, to the promise of God, and to the hope of salvation he was about to accomplish upon the cross!
We can say that the old covenant saints form a heavenly brigade of witnesses to God’s faithfulness and urge the new covenant saints forward to full and final victory. They know we are tied to them and follow in the trail of faith God laid out for them; we must feel our connectedness to them, especially in testing and killing times for the saints, for we must stand fast as they stood, run with patience as they did. We are surrounded with these witnesses, which must encourage us to be faithful in God’s great work of redemption. The church must finish the race together; all God’s elect must cross the finish line. And this means that each one of us must see ourselves as vitally connected with those who have gone before us. We must presently run as carrying the torch of faith for the glory of God in the world and for the growth of Christ’s church and kingdom. And we must run such that we pass faith forward – always “higher up, further in” is the call of Christ. It is an ageless cry to all the saints. It is a heavenly race we are running – to heaven and Christ Jesus, for he is standing at the end of the course, the Forerunner and Victor.
Get Rid of Every Weight (v. 1)
Unbelief: The Specific Sin and Crushing Burden (Heb. 3:12)
In the days of the Greek Olympic and PanHellenic games, the contestants competed naked. Just as it would be difficult to run a race in an overcoat and boots – and impossible to win! – so we must lay aside every weight. The “weight” is further modified by the “sin that so easily ensnares us,” but first is the general direction to get rid of everything that holds you back. There are the obvious weights or burdens of the lust of the flesh, of the eyes, and every form of pride. Anything that takes our eyes off Christ, diminishes love for him, holds our hearts earthbound so that we cannot run patiently and joyfully for him, is a burden that we must lay aside. Each must carry his cross and fight against his particular sins. Some love the world, others the praise of men; some love earthly pleasure, while others are miserly, stoic, and hardly crack a smile over anything. All that prevents us from running by faith, all unrealistic expectations, all hatefulness, all fear – all must be laid aside for the honor of Christ. And each one of us needs basic and strong warnings to forsake sin, kill it, and be vigilant against evil (Luke 21:34; Eph. 4:22-31; Col. 3:5).
There is one sin that we have in common, one sin that particularly ensnares us and always looks for an occasion against us. In its grip, we cannot run well. It is the sin that was stalking these believers, occasioned this letter, and against which the great faith heroes of chapter 11 bear witness. It is the sin of an evil heart of unbelief. “Beware, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:14). “Lay aside” is the verb that controls our understanding of this sin, and it is always used in contexts referring to our fundamentally depraved or sinful nature, with the evil works that follow from it. We are to “put off” the old man of sin and his ways” (Eph. 4:22). We are told to “put off” or “lay aside” anger, wrath, malice, and blasphemy, the deeds of the old man (Col. 3:8-9). In an earlier letter the apostle told them to “put off” the deeds of darkness (Rom. 13:12). Thus, we are to lay side this weight above all – not believing God’s word and distrusting his wisdom. If we give way to unbelief, various sins will then burden us and prevent our running the race of faith and doing our part to glorify God in the world and bring the whole church to perfection in holiness and joy.
Readiness: The Flesh Always Fights Back (Gal. 5:17)
I do not think apostasy is directly the “easily ensnaring sin,” for this sin would prevent one from running the race at all. To renounce Christ is to leave the race course. But a believer struggling with unbelief – the very opposite of chapter 11 and a denial of his own true self in Christ – might be on the course but barely limping or crawling through the mud. There can be no joy and no hope in such a soul, which is the reason that we are to “lay aside” unbelief, which at its heart is renunciation of God’s word and a satanic refusal to trust God’s wisdom. And since “run” is a present active verb, we are therefore warned that this is not a one-time laying aside. There is no more ensnaring or entangling sin than to get caught in the web of unbelief – questioning God’s wisdom, doubting his care, following one’s own thoughts.
We are to understand by this whole description of our race that as we run, we are being stalked – by unbelief. We have the Spirit, but our flesh is always fighting back against him. Too many believers get sidetracked and frustrated by failing to take running into account. Running hurts. You have to fight against your mind and your joints. We must remain on guard against unbelief, telling God “this is impossible” or “this will not work.” The flesh will always insinuate that there is a better way than trusting God and walking forward in obedience. And this weight of unbelief we must replace with the weight of glory – of God’s greatness and faithfulness, of his power and wisdom, and of our safety and strength in union with Christ as we trust God’s promise, depend upon his strength, and obey his commands.
Run the Race with Patience (v. 1)
Stamina not Speed the Key
And thus we must run with patience. In our Christian race, not speed but stamina is the critical thing. This is a compelling counterweight to today’s get it done quickly mentality. Many rush through to-do lists and almost equate their personal value with how much they accomplish each day, and how quickly. Laziness is no virtue, so do not think that siting on the porch sipping lemonade and pontificating about life is the right posture. We are to run. To run means to follow on toward Christ, to walk humbly and obediently with God, and to trust him to lead and to care of us by the Spirit that indwells us. Our running requires patience. This is the main adjective brought forward here. We do not reach the end of our course in one day or even one year. Being a disciple of the Lord is a lifelong pursuit, a race that ends at death, a finish line that takes you in one moment from running to rejoicing in heaven in the presence of Jesus Christ. We must expect many obstacles, for the path to be uphill sometimes, at other times in a free fall downhill so that we do not know where we shall land. Our sides shall ache, and all the while unbelief is trying to trip us up. It is a sobering picture of the Christian life.
Run when You Want to Stop
Perhaps we might say it like this. Every runner has faced moments when his brain and body have yelled STOP! Hey, no one is chasing you. Your house is not on fire – stop doing this to me – and every non-runner readily concurs! But the truth about our Christian race is that faith keeps running when everything around us is yelling and enticing us to stop running toward Christ, in obedience, in the narrow path. Even Christian friends may tell us to stop being so earnest about keeping the Sabbath, or educating our children with a biblical worldview, or tithing, or wasting so much time with trivialities, or any number of other basic duties that are neglected in our distracted age. Our flesh will suggest a few minutes more of sleep is more needed than a few minutes of communion with Christ. Our bodily or financial circumstances will often urge us to take matters into our own hands, or give up altogether, for God has apparently forsaken us. This is the spiritual equivalent to a heart pounding out of your chest, your brain urging you to stop, telling you to go to the next tree but no further, sweat pouring off you, your legs aching. It happens – often. It was happening to these believers – no further, the flesh said! No further, Satan enticed! No further, the world threatened. Faith says – I must keep running. Aching sides are no excuse to stop going toward my Savior who loved and gave himself for me, who endured the cross for my poor sake. Nothing is too hard for my Jesus. He is worthy of my running, even if I run straight into the arms of Goliath or the mouths of lions because the path of obedience took me there.
Keep Your Eye Fixed upon Jesus (v. 2)
His Name: Jesus: Savior and Sufferer
Without qualification or reservation, the apostolic doctrine is that the Christian race is futile to start, impossible to run, and certain to disappoint apart from union with Jesus Christ. He is the Vine, the Bread, and the Life. Fullness of grace and truth are found in him alone. We cannot run patiently and cross the finish line unless the eyes of faith are firmly fixed upon him. This implies that the old covenant saints “rejoiced to see his day” (John 8:56). Even then, Christ the Mediator was all their strength to believe, obey, and endure. And he has come. His personal name is emphatically placed here to emphasize that he is both Savior and Sufferer, that he saved us by suffering and enduring the cross. Thus, the disciple’s path is no different than his Master; the servant is not greater than his Lord. And since our Savior suffered and endured the cross, he is able to help us run the race with patience. This is the reason that we must think about who he is and what he has done for us. Thinking of him, we must call upon him for strength. We must lay our diseases, sins, hurts, anxieties, and even our struggles with unbelief before him – “Lord, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
It is the failure to set our mind’s eye upon the glory of Jesus Christ, his divine, eternal glory, his mediatorial person and glory, his present intercession and reign at the Father’s right hand that is the ultimate source of cold hearts and flagging faith. Too little communion with Jesus Christ – real communion with him in the word, casting ourselves on the ground before him, believing his promises and abiding in his word unto prayer and watchfulness against sin – always opens the door to unbelief. It will come first in the form of neglect of God’s basic commands. This pattern if continued will lead to distrust and feelings of distance from God, even loss of any assurance of his love and mercy. And there is nothing more miserable for the true believer than this, and it will lead him to seek God with honest confession and fervent desire, confessing his sins, pleading covenant mercies, and looking only to Jesus’ worthiness, cross, and strength to recover him. In dead hearts, there is no real sense of loss at having no communion with Christ. You do not feel that you are missing anything, and if someone talks of Christ, there is a blank space in your heart, perhaps disdain in your mind against such open sentimentality. May God quicken us so that we may truly look unto Jesus, trust in his finished work, daily appeal to him for strengthening by the Spirit, and more closely abide in him and in his word! He is our life.
His Work: To Begin and to Complete Faith
The Spirit never forgets that we need encouragement. In this serious letter filled with warnings and in this passage about running with patience, he constantly turns our thoughts to our Savior. Never are we left to our own strength or wisdom. This is the reason for these two famous descriptives, Author and Finisher. Jesus raised us from the dead to new life and gave us faith to repent and believe the gospel. Faith in his work by the quickening Spirit; it exists solely by his inceptive working (Eph. 2:8-9). And he will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). Satan can howl away as he pleases, or stir up his dupes to harass and injure the church, but Jesus Christ holds us in his hand. With his Father and through the indwelling Spirit, he is continually working in us (Phil. 3:13): encouraging, liberally giving us assurance of God’s great love (Rom. 5:5), and making us fruitful. In every temptation, he makes a way to escape, if only we would seek him and take it (1 Cor. 10:13). And however many troubles through which we must pass, diseases that ravage our bodies, or persecutions we must endure, he carries us in his bosom and gently leads us (Isa. 40:11). His yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:29).
His Suffering: He Endured the Cross
Our Lord Jesus does not simply sit at the end of the finish line to welcome us home. He does not simply begin and complete the work of salvation in us. He lived it. Although he was the Son of God, he took upon himself the form of a servant, was made in our likeness, and became obedient unto death. Talk about “lowliness of mind,” studying how to be as low as possible. This was Jesus our Savior. He endured the cross, the cross of our shame and curse. He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to those who plucked out the beard (Isa. 50:6). He did not hide his face from shame and spitting – our shame and spitting, well deserved because of our rebellion against God. The One upon whom we look, has already sunk so very low for our salvation. He became “stricken, smitten, and afflicted” to redeem us to God by his blood. Shall we tuck tail and run from suffering for his name’s sake, or count it an honor (Acts 5:41)? I pray the latter.
But note these dynamic connections. The One who begins and completes our faith was himself a believer in the lowest pit of hell and judgment. This is hard to take in. When the Jews at Calvary threw in his face, “He trusted God; let him deliver him, if he delights in him,” they never spoke truer words (Ps. 22:8; Matt. 27:43). Clothed in our flesh and suffering in our place, Jesus did not stop trusting his Father. In Gethsemane, he trusted so much that he gave himself completely to the will of his Father, even when his Father’s will meant that he must drain the bitter cup of judgment against sinners. He trusted on the cross. He would see the path of life. His father would hear and deliver him. Read Psalms 18 and 22. Read Isaiah 53. Jesus read them. He held to them as his very life, when everything else was absolutely taken away from him but this single thread of God’s promises. He has now made full satisfaction for us, been raised for us, and reigns for us. He knows every dark way and trial, every way that fear, sin, and Satan assault the soul. He knows. We must look to him, take all our fears and cares to him, and walk as he did, trusting his Father’s sworn love and living by his Father’s every word.
His Motivation: The Joy Set before Him
How? The cry rings down through the ages. Why go through this? The gospel is either the biggest farce in the history of mankind – and sometimes looking at the worldly lives, cold hearts, and hateful words of Jesus’ professing disciples, it is easy to see why men would think this – or it is the profoundest truth of God. Jesus Christ endured the pain and shame of the cross “for the joy set before him.” This joy is undoubtedly the same joy set before us: “You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Our blessed Jesus looked toward to obtaining our full and free redemption, to honoring his Father and being honored by him with the glory he had with him before the foundation of the world (John 17:5,24). Part of this glorifying is that we would be with him in heaven and behold his glory – for his glory as Jesus the Suffering Savior is also our glory inheritance as the redeemed of the Lord – the same path of life, the fullness of joy in God’s presence, life with him in the new heavens and earth. It boggles the mind to think that the Son of God shares his destiny with us. He offers us the same joy.
His Reward: Sat Down at God’s Right Hand
He does more than offer. Having suffered, he has now entered his kingdom and glory (Luke 24:27). To be set down at God’s right hand is to be in the position of universal dominion and power. He is the King of kings. All that we see happening in the world is his hand – driving the proud to greater heights of vanity so that their plunge will be all the more ignominious, frustrating the warmongers, and beating back the Babel builders, letting them go only so far in their city of man projects as will promote his city by stirring his people to seek it by faith and prayer and obedience with greater alacrity and zeal. But higher than this in the present context is that the Jesus to whom we must look (Col. 3:1-3) is the reigning Lord of all. He is able and willing to help us.
Believe upon his name right now. Consider your particular trials this day, the responsibilities upon your shoulders, the areas of unbelief in your life – take them all to the King of kings and Lord of lords. God does not mock us, as if he is saying here to look at an idea, or to get all jazzed by fresh sentiment. He is telling us to look at the Lord of glory, now enthroned, exalted, extolled, and very high. He is telling us to come to him as the Lamb still looking as if he had been slain but now raised and reigning and interceding always for us (Heb. 7:25), so that we never lack an advocate, a friend, a helper in the very presence of the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God. And if this does not give us encouragement to run our race patiently, we may have collapsed somewhere along the way or have not yet begun running. Either way, let us look up and see him there at God’s right hand, and with old Bartimaeus, cry out to him, Son of David, have mercy upon me. Jesus, the suffering Savior and Son of God, save me. He will.