A Faith That Endures Hebrews 12:1–4
The book of Hebrews was written to provide evidence of Jesus Christ’s divinity, confirm that the Mosaic Law had been both fulfilled and abrogated in Christ, and exhort Jewish believers to remain steadfast in their faith and continue to spiritual maturity.
Three times in the first three verses of Hebrews 12, Jewish believers are commanded to endure persecution patiently for their faith in Christ. To encourage them not to vacillate, the author provided two examples of those who endured persecution. First, he mentioned Old Testament believers who exemplified living by faith. Then he provided the supreme example: Jesus Christ, who was faithful even to death.
The chapter begins with a word of encouragement:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (v. 1).
The word cloud is used metaphorically to speak of a huge group of believers in heaven. The word witness (Greek, marturon) means one who testifies to what he has seen, heard, or knows personally. In the first century, it referred to someone who witnessed the signing of a contract or legal document. Thus the phrase cloud of witnesses refers to those cited in Hebrews 11 as examples of faith throughout Jewish history. These Old Testament believers were approved by God because of their faith. Thus they showed the early church the type of faith that pleases God.
All believers, especially during times of persecution, should study the lives of these men and women, be greatly encouraged by them, and emulate their faith. They were able to endure, and we must do likewise.
A word must be said about what the phrase cloud of witnesses does not mean. It does not mean these “witnesses” are looking down from heaven on believers and know how they are living out their faith. Often Christians find comfort in thinking their loved ones can see them and know the struggles they face here. These may be nice thoughts, but Scripture does not contain this teaching.
The author used the concept of a foot race to illustrate the type of faith believers should have. The word race (Greek, agona) is the English word for “agony” (v. 1). Pictured here are runners in a marathon, like those in the Grecian games. The race was an agonizing, grueling ordeal; and winning required self-discipline, stamina, strategy, and patient endurance.
Consequently, Scripture says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (v. 1). The phrase let us is used throughout Hebrews, challenging readers to apply the truths they have heard (cf. 4:1, 11, 14, 16; 6:1; 10:22–24). The phrase is a gracious way to exhort people to embrace what is being taught.
Believers are exhorted to do three things to run the race of faith.
- “Lay aside every weight” (v. 1). The word weight means “bulk” or “mass.” It could refer to excess body weight; a heavy, bulky garment; or any-thing binding the runner’s body and thus encumbering him. For Christians, it means ridding themselves of everything that retards their progress, even though some hindrances may not be sinful. In context, it refers to the Jewish traditions that hindered these believers from growing in their faith.
- “Lay aside…the sin which so easily ensnares [besets] us” (v. 1). The Greek word for “ensnares” is used only here in the New Testament and conveys the idea of sin encircling someone, impeding his progress. The definite article the preceding the word sin denotes a particular sin: that of believers returning to their Jewish roots. Today believers might apply the exhortation to a specific sin in their lives that needs to be discarded.
- “Run with endurance the race that is set before us” (v. 1). This race is not a sprint. It is a marathon that requires endurance to finish. Runners must shed all unnecessary weights, patiently pace themselves, and persistently endure as they faithfully struggle through life to the finish line.
The greatest encouragement to persevering in faith is the supreme example of Jesus Christ: “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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 2).
The word looking means to turn one’s eyes away from all distractions and fix them continually on one thing. In context, that means fixing one’s eyes on Jesus. A runner must focus on the course and goal before him, not on his surroundings, or he will be distracted, lose his stride, slacken his pace, and even fall.
In the race of faith, the believer’s ultimate example is not the witnesses in Hebrews 11, but Jesus, who is “the author and finisher of our faith.” The word author connotes an originator, founder, or chief leader. Jesus is the “forerunner” (6:20) of the faith, setting the supreme, perfect example that all Christians are to follow. He is the greatest example of patient endurance under severe persecution, having been tried illegally and crucified (cf. Isa. 53:7; 1 Pet. 2:21–23). Jesus is also the “finisher” or “completer” of the believer’s faith; through His death and resurrection, He secured eternal salvation for all who trust in Him (Heb. 5:9).
Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him” (12:2). Clearly, His joy was not in being crucified. It was the most disgraceful and dehumanizing death known. Yet He did not allow the privation, suffering, contempt, and cursing to dissuade Him from God’s will. He freely bore the shame and disgrace to provide for our salvation.
The “joy that was set before Him” was His final victory over Satan and sin, thus completing God’s work of redemption, bringing glory to God the Father by implementing His plan of salvation, and being reunited with the Father in heaven.
After His postresurrection ministry, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:8–10) and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2: cf. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12). The word sat is in the Greek perfect tense, meaning that, at a point in time, Jesus took His seat on a throne at the Father’s right hand and remains there, signifying the completion of His ministry. His seated position at the Father’s right hand is a sign of triumph and foreshadows or portends His and all believers’ future and final victory (cf. 1:13–14).
Scripture then commands readers to analyze Christ’s suffering: “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (12:3).
The word consider (Greek, analogizomai) is our word analogy and means to reckon, add up, and weigh Christ’s sufferings against our own. Ponder this: Jesus was born in a stable to poor parents who fled Jerusalem with Him to save His life; He was reared in a deplorable city, lost His father early in life, and had no permanent home during His ministry. He was considered mentally unbalanced and demon-possessed; He was disbelieved by His family, hated and opposed by the religious leaders, forsaken by His disciples, tried illegally, and scourged and beaten before He was finally crucified.
Looking at His suffering would make theirs seem insignificant. Thus they “should not become weary and discouraged in [their] souls” (v. 3). The word weary means to become exhausted and possibly ill due to persecution. Some Jewish believers had grown weary, which led to discouragement. They had become faint-hearted, lost confidence and enthusiasm, and had slackened in their commitment.
Then the text goes one step further in comparing the Jewish believers’ suffering to that of Jesus: “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (v. 4). “You” refers to believers who had previously faced persecution at the hands of their brethren (10:32–34). They had suffered physically and materially; but none had endured the suffering Jesus had, nor had anyone given his life for the gospel. These believers needed to ponder afresh the Messiah’s suffering and renew their commitment to Him, thus gaining strength to persevere in the race of faith.
They were still “striving against sin” (12:4). The word striving means to contend, as in a race, or to engage in conflict, as in a boxing match. Their conflict required them to stand against sinful men wanting to harm them as they harmed Jesus and against the sin of renouncing their faith in Christ by returning to their Jewish roots.
In our race of faith, we must heed the admonishment to consider all Jesus faced as the Originator and Completer of our faith. We, too, must remain faithful and not become weary or discouraged but persevere patiently, with endurance, to the finish line.