Running the Race of Faith
In July 1923 at Stoke-on-Trent, England, a gun sounded, marking the start of a 440-yard race between runners from England, Ireland, and Scotland. Just a few paces into the race, J. J. Gillies of England cut through the pack to get an inside position. As he did so, he inadvertently tripped a runner from Scotland, who fell to the grass. Gillies quickly took the lead, while the Scot sat forlornly on the ground, concluding he had been disqualified. It seemed the race was over for him.
When the book of Hebrews was written, many Jewish believers were much like the Scot. They were attempting to run the “race” of their new faith in Jesus the Messiah but were finding it difficult. Apparently they had experienced suffering, although not yet to the point of shedding blood (10:32; 12:4). Still, the reproaches and loss of property (10:33–34) were almost too much for some of them to bear. Despite the blessings they had found in Messiah Jesus, some were still considering retreating to the old, familiar ways of Judaism, where it was safe.
The writer to these discouraged Hebrews was led of God to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (12:12) and to urge these Jewish Christians not to become mentally “wearied and faint” (12:3). The first ten chapters of the book gives them overwhelming theological support for their decision to follow Christ, demonstrating that Christ is supremely better than anything they had in Judaism.
But then the writer exposed the crux of the matter: “For ye have need of patience [endurance]” (10:36). Instead of giving up, they needed to press on. He urged them to continue doing God’s will so that they might receive what God had promised (10:36). Their present difficulties were only temporary. Soon, they were told, the Lord will return to judge the wicked and reward the faithful (10:37). Meanwhile, they should continue to live by the same basic, scriptural principle they adopted when they originally had trusted Christ, namely, “the just shall live by faith” (10:38).
This call to endure was not an impossible one to follow. It was based on an accurate understanding of the essence of faith and was verified by scores of examples of those who had gone before.
‘Now Faith Is’
Of the thirty-nine occurrences of the word faith in this epistle, thirty-one are in 10:22—12:3. The writer, as the Holy Spirit moved him, apparently was intent on making sure his readers properly grasped the concept of faith.
Hebrews 11:1 is not so much a formal definition of faith as it is a clarification of the essence of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Biblical faith, at its core, is an assurance, a confidence, a certainty of the future realization of God-given hopes and blessings the eye cannot see. Thus, after receiving a promise from an angel of God, the apostle Paul could declare on the deck of a storm-tossed, sea-ravaged ship, “Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (Acts 27:25). Paul could not physically see the outcome of what had been promised him, but he was certain of it nevertheless.
The Jewish believers in the book of Hebrews were mistakenly focusing their attention on what could be seen, namely, their problems, their pain, and their experiences. Just as “doubting” Thomas had done before them, they were falling into the trap of empiricism. If I cannot see it, taste it, touch it, hear it, or smell it, then it cannot be real, they thought. But Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).
Contrary to the old adage, seeing is not believing when it comes to biblical faith. Instead, believing is seeing because faith looks at life through spiritual eyes. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he told the Corinthians, “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
Only faith pleases God (Heb. 11:6). It communicates to Him that we believe He both exists and rewards those who seek Him. Our faith also reveals that we believe God is good and His Word sure. Thus we act on our belief by coming to Him, certain of what has not yet come to be.
‘So Great a Cloud of Witnesses’
After explaining the essence of faith, Hebrews 11 encourages us with a list of elders who obtained a good report (11:2). These were heroes of days gone by, people who indisputably ran the race of life with enduring faith. By examining their lives, God shows us what faith in action really looks like.
There was Abel who, by faith, “obtained witness that he was righteous” (11:4), again showing “the just shall live by faith.” Enoch’s faith pleased God to the point that he was raptured, escaping death (11:5). Noah’s faith saved his family, condemned the world, and enabled him to inherit the righteousness that comes by faith (11:7).
By faith, Abraham obeyed God and left Ur of the Chaldees, unaware of his destination (11:8). He endured in a foreign land because his eyes of faith looked to the city and homeland God had promised him (11:9–10, 16).
Sarah, his wife, conceived a child in her old age, the first of innumerable descendants. Why? Because “she judged him faithful who had promised” (11:11). When told to sacrifice his only child, Isaac, Abraham unhesitatingly obeyed. He was so certain of God’s promise to establish a nation through Isaac that he concluded God would raise Isaac from the dead in order to keep His Word (11:17–19).
The roster of “champions” includes Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, who all acted in faith because they were confident of the outcome (11:20–22).
Moses’ parents protected him as an infant for three months, demonstrating that the antithesis of fear is faith (11:23).
Moses himself refused a pagan identity, choosing ill treatment and reproach over tangible riches. The reason? He was looking to an unseen reward (11:24–26). Likewise, when leaving Egypt, Moses did not fear the king’s wrath. He had already placed his faith in a far greater King. Thus “he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (11:27). Moses’ faith also led him to keep the Passover, being convinced it would protect him from God’s impending judgment (11:28).
By faith, the children of Israel, confident of the future realization of their God-given hope, witnessed a wall of water stand up and a wall of stone fall down (11:29–30).
Rahab the harlot, a Gentile, looked ahead to the certain victory the God of Israel would provide for His people, and she believed. Consequently, God spared her life (11:31).
These are but a few examples of people of faith. Even the writer of Hebrews recognized the list was endless and limited his enumeration (11:32). God’s Word speaks in generalities from this point forward, rehearsing miraculous deeds of valor and glory (11:33–35). But it also includes the stark realities of living by faith in a fallen and perverse world. Destitution, homelessness, mockery, beatings, torture, imprisonment, and various forms of execution awaited those who dared to see beyond their day (11:35–38).
Today is no different. Christians around the world are being tortured, maimed, and killed because they refuse to deny Christ. They are being beaten, imprisoned, driven from their homes, and snatched from their families. Yet God encourages us in Hebrews to hold tightly to our faith, endure hardship, and run the “race,” “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (12:1–2).
Despite the fact that God’s promises regarding Messiah’s Second Advent never came to pass in their lifetimes, the ancient saints still believed. They kept the faith. Therefore, “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (11:16).
‘Let Us Run With Patience’
After guiding us through the “hall of faith,” God’s Word gives us an important exhortation:
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 (12:1).
If those who have gone before us could persevere, so can we. If they could live and die by faith, so can we. If they could look beyond the visible and temporal to the invisible and eternal, so can we.
The key to perseverance, however, is not our faith, in and of itself. The key is the object of our faith. The Bible tells us to “run with patience the race,” but only by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (12:2). Jesus Christ, the ultimate example of perseverance, having endured both the cross and the hostility of sinners, is to be the object of our spiritual focus (12:2–3). It is to Him we must look, unswervingly.
The apostle Peter learned this lesson dramatically when he began to sink when he took his eyes off the Lord (Mt. 14:30). But later his eyes of faith were pointed in the right direction: “Whom, having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).
The 1923 athlete who thought he had lost the race was none other than Eric Liddell, known as the Flying Scotsman. A number of nearby officials urged Liddell to get up and keep on running. Despite the fact he was twenty yards behind, Liddell lifted himself up and ran with all his might. Amazingly, he passed Gillies, took the lead, and crossed the finish line two yards ahead of everyone else.1
Eric Liddell was a Christian who not only persevered in athletics but also in the race of faith. He eventually became a missionary in China and died of a brain tumor in a Japanese concentration camp at the age of 43. Today he is with the Savior, enjoying all the blessings he was unable to see while here on Earth.
We live in uncertain times. Doubt and despair fill our world. In many places the name of Jesus Christ is despised and ridiculed, and those who love the Lord are in mortal danger. It can be tempting to give up. Yet, despite all the tumult and raging of the nations, we can still persevere in our faith. Others have done so before us. Jesus Himself endured the cross for our sakes. Let us, therefore, press on for His sake.
- Sally Magnusson, The Flying Scotsman, Quartet Books,