Running with Endurance
Running with Endurance
Hebrew chapter 12, verses 1, 2, and 3 is the focus today. Let's read the Word of the Lord:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The last long distance race I ran was about 15 years ago. It was the Turkey Trot in Dallas, Texas, on Thanksgiving morning. It was approximately nine miles in length. I remember the last couple miles of that race and feeling like I was going to die. After that race I hung up my running shoes forever.
It's interesting that the author of Hebrews chooses the metaphor of the long distance race to illustrate the Christian life, and an apt picture it is. The Christian life is a matter of endurance and struggle and difficulty. Yes, there is victory—there is victory now and there's victory when we cross the finish line and enter heaven—but between now and then it's a struggle. That might be one of the reasons why we have an English word that we have borrowed from the very Greek word in our text, the Greek word translated race. Literally, the author says, "Let us run the agona." Does that sound like an English word you've heard? Well sure: the word agony. Anyone here who has run long distances knows that's an accurate description! From the top of your head to the soles of your feet, every nerve fiber throbs with pain when you run the long distance race. You feel like your lungs are going to burst out of your chest and your legs are rubber; it is agony! It's a struggle! So this agona is a picture of the Christian life, and we are all spiritual athletes on the racetrack, living for the Lord, running the race that has been set before us by God himself. It is our duty, our responsibility, to run.
A race is also characterized by progress. There is a starting line, and there is a finish line. The gun goes off, the runners begin to run, and they make progress, one foot after another foot, toward the goal. The Christian life is that way. In fact, the keyword in the Christian life is not the word perfection. Now, you will achieve perfection in heaven at glorification, but that's not the keyword in your Christian life now. The keyword is progression. The important question is, Are you making progress as a Christian, as a spiritual athlete, running this Christian ultramarathon that God has called us to run? Are you further along today than you were last week, last month, a year ago, three years ago? Are you making progress?
Another part of this race is the importance of direction. You've got to run in the right direction! You've got to run toward the goal! In fact, if you run in circles you'll never win; if you run backwards, you'll never win; if you violate the rules and run across the boundaries of the track, you will be disqualified. It's important that you run in the right direction!
The year was 1928 when southern California played Georgia Tech in the Rose Bowl, and at that game there was an event that made sports history. There was a fumble on the field, and a man by the name of Roy Riegels picked up the ball. He began to run. He eluded one tackler here, another over there, running that ball 80 yards! The best run of the day! But finally Roy Riegels was tackled by his own teammates just short of his own goal line. In all the confusion of the fumble, believe it or not, Roy Riegels had run 80 yards in the wrong direction. He earned a nickname that stayed with him for the rest of his life: "Wrong Way Riegels."
I wonder if God ever looks down from heaven on his children, shakes his head, and says, "There goes old Wrong Way Bill. There goes old Wrong Way Susan … always running off in the wrong direction in their Christian life." You see, if we're going to run this race successfully, we must run in the right direction.
There is one main point that the author is driving at in these three verses, found at the end of verse 1 in these words: "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." This is what the author desires we know and do. Let us run with endurance the Christian life. We are commanded to live the Christian life with endurance for our Savior. But the author doesn't leave us there; he tells us three things that we need to know, and three ways that we go about doing that.
Stand on the shoulders of others.
The first thing is found right at the beginning of verse 1: "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us … let us run with endurance the race set before us."
Who is that cloud of witnesses? You say, "Oh! I know the answer to that! Why, that's my grandmother who was a great Christian, and she's gone on to heaven, and she's there in the grandstands watching me run." "Oh I know who it is! It's David, my pastor who led me to the Lord many years ago. He's gone on to his reward and is in heaven watching me run!"
Whether or not those Christians who have influenced our lives and who have gone onto heaven to their reward are aware of what we do on this earth or not, I do not know. Frankly, the Bible doesn't say. One thing I do know: that is not what this passage means. So what does it mean? Did you notice that strong conjunction that binds this passage together with chapter 11? "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us." In the first century, a cloud was used to metaphorically describe a large company of people. Who comprises this crowd in Hebrews?
Let's look at Hebrews 11:1-2: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it"—by faith—"the men of old gained approval." That last phrase in Greek literally means, "Men of old obtained a good witness." Now, at the end of chapter 11, after the author introduces us all to the great men and women of faith, he says, "And all these, having gained approval," which is the same exact phrase in Greek. So now the author comes to chapter 12: "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us." This cloud is the great men and women of faith in the Old Testament! And what's encouraging about this list of faithful people is that virtually all of them are also described in Scripture as being people of weakness and failure and sin. It's good for me to be reminded that no one is perfect, but we can run our race with faith, considering those upon whose shoulders we stand. Great men and women of faith who have gone before us testify that the life worth living for Christ is the life of faith.
Now, by analogy and application, it's appropriate to apply this to anyone upon whose shoulders you stand as a Christian today. I think about little Miss Bishop, barely 5 feet tall, who was my fourth grade Sunday school teacher. One Sunday after Sunday school concluded and we were filing out the door to go to the worship service, she pulled me aside said, "David, I believe God has something special planned for your life. And I want you to know that I am going to be praying for you every single day from now on." Well, when you're in the fourth grade, you're thinking about baseball and other things like that, so I just went on my way. But a few years later, November 18th, 1973, when I was 16 years old, God called me to preach. I made that known to my pastor and after the service he had people come by to let me know they would be praying for me. Little Miss Bishop, a little grayer now, came through the line, took my hand, gripped it like a vice, looked into my eyes, and said, "Son, do you remember that day a few years back when you were in my fourth grade Sunday school class and I told you I would be praying for you?" I said, "Yes, Ma'am, I do remember that." She said, "From that day until this day, not a day has gone by that I have not called your name out in prayer before our heavenly Father." And then she said, "I promise you from this day forward until the Lord takes me home, I will call your name out in prayer before God."
Miss Bishop was one of those Christians who never served God in the bay window; she always served God in the basement. Nobody ever knew her outside of our church. Her name was never known anywhere, but that dear lady of faith would have been and could have been written about in Hebrews chapter 11. She is among God's faithful, and upon her shoulders I stand this day in front of you. She ran her course, and lived it by faith. And she spurs me on and encourages me to run the Christian's ultramarathon.
Lay aside your weights and sin.
The author of Hebrews tells me there's a second thing I need to do as I'm running my Christian race, and that thing is also found in verse 1. He says I am to "lay aside every encumbrance"—every weight, anything that would impede my progress and hold me back—"and the sin which so easily entangles us." You cannot run the long distance race if you are impeded by any kind of weight that holds you back. It is impossible. You have to divest yourself of those things. You may train in ankle weights, preparing to run, as I did when I ran cross-country in high school, but then when you come to the track meet with all the other schools around, you discard your weights, and you run with no encumbrance.
Suppose I am at my high school track meet, and my coach is giving us our last little pep talk, and all the other high schools are there, and the gun is about to go off for the race to begin, and suddenly the coach looks down and he sees that around my ankles are my ankle weights—two and a half pounds of leather with sand sewn inside, one on each leg. And my coach says, "David, you forgot to take off your ankle weights!" And I say, "No I didn't, Coach. I've grown accustomed to them. I like them. I'm going to run with them today!" Now, my coach would know that I was six fries short of a Happy Meal if I were to do that! No one in their right mind would run with weights! You can't do that, and you shouldn't do that.
If this I true, how come I noticed many of you coming into the service today carrying some bulging backpacks of bitterness? You plopped them down in the seat beside you when you sat down. I noticed some others of you carrying handbags of anger, and they're seated right beside you. I noticed that a few of you bent over and carrying a big old trunk full of all kinds of weight that is holding you back as a Christian. It's so heavy it wouldn't even fit between the pews. When you sat down you had to sit on the end and plop it down in the aisle, and there it sits. The aisles and pews are strewn with handbags and backpacks and trunks of all kinds of weights that spiritual athletes have brought into this building today. Why would you do that? You can't run that way. You cannot succeed in the Christian life that way. You must, as the word in Greek says, "lay aside" (which means to cast off) anything that would hinder you.
In the first century, when runners came to the Olympic Games, they would come wearing long, flowing, colorful robes. And at the last minute, before the race began, they would suddenly disrobe, and you would find strewn around the starting line all of the robes of all of the runners who had entered in. Many runners in the first century ran totally naked. They did not want to be impeded in any way in their race, and hence, they discarded anything, any weight, that would hinder.
Our author says that we are to discard not only the weights but the sin. Since he uses the singular rather than the plural, some of you might think he's referring to the pet sin that each of us has. We all have a sin that we continually struggle with. For somebody it's internet pornography; for somebody else it's anger; for somebody else it's lying; and so on. The author is saying we ought to get rid of our pet sin.
While it's certainly true that we ought to do that, I don't think contextually that's what the author's talking about here. In the context leading into chapter 12—and you should never do preaching or teaching of the Bible without carefully investigating the context—the author is begging his people not to succumb to the great sin of faithlessness in the Christian life. He's just listed all kinds of exemplary people—great men and women who by faith won the victory. That's the reference here; the sin that so easily entangles is the lack of such faith.
The Christian life begins in faith, but it doesn't stop there. You've got to live every day by faith. In fact, at the end of chapter 10 leading into 11, the author quoted Habakkuk 2:4, "The just shall live by faith." That's the focus leading up to this passage. But some of us don't like to live by faith; we want to live by sight. We want to get the calculator out and figure out how everything works. It's hard to live by faith. I don't like to live by faith; it cuts against my nature. But we must live by faith.
The word for entangle here that the author uses is a Greek word that literally means to bind. Some of us are so bound by our lack of faith that we can't run this race well. We're clumsy, and we can't run very far. It's pretty tiring.
Now the author makes his main point: Having laid aside every weight and the sin that so fits us like a glove, that so wraps itself around us, "let us run with endurance the race set before us." You see that little phrase "with endurance"? The author has taken that and placed it at the very front of the clause, so the Greek actually reads like this, "with endurance, let us run the race that has been set before us." The focus is on endurance. When you are stealing second base or running the 100 yard dash, speed is critical. But when you are running the ultramarathon, the long distance race, speed is not critical. Endurance is critical.
In 1983, Australia hosted its ultramarathon, a 573.7 mile foot race from Sydney to Melbourne. This is a race that takes days to run, and professionals from all over the world came to participate. Shortly before the race began, a 61-year-old sheep herder named Cliff Young, wearing overalls and goulashes over his boots, walked up to the registration table and requested a number to enter the race. The folk at the registration table thought it was a joke—that somebody was setting them up—so they laughed. But Cliff Young said, "No, I'd really like to run." Well, people still thought it was a joke, but they gave him a number anyway and pinned it on his old overalls. He walked over to the start of the race. All the other professional runners, who were decked out in all their running regalia, looked at him like he was crazy. The crowd snickered. People began to laugh. They laughed even more when the gun went off and the race began, because all those professional runners with sculpted bodies and beautiful strides made their way out and began to run, but not Cliff Young. He didn't even run like a runner. Cliff Young ran with an awkward, goofy-looking shuffle. All through the crowd people were laughing, and finally, someone called out, "Get that old fool off the track!"
Five days, 14 hours, and four minutes later, at 1:25 in the morning, Cliff Young shuffled across the finish line of the 573.7 mile ultramarathon. He had won the race. And he didn't win by a nose, with the guy in second right on his heels. He didn't win by a matter of minutes or even an hour or two. The second place runner was nine hours and 56 minutes behind. Cliff Young had set a new world record for the ultramarathon. It was unbelievable. He became an instant hero in Australia. The press mobbed him wondering what kind of special running shoes he must have had, and they rummaged through his backpack wondering what he'd survived on—and he'd lived primarily on pumpkin seeds and water—and then it was discovered: Nobody ever told Cliff Young that when you run in the ultramarathon, you run for 18 hours straight, and then you stop and sleep for three or four hours. No, Cliff Young shuffled his way to victory without ever sleeping. He endured running five days, 14 hours, and four minutes at the age of 61. With endurance, let us run this Christian ultramarathon.
Some of you today are facing unbelievable problems. Some of you today are hurting deeply. Some of you today are struggling financially. Some of you today are leading a church, and you've given your best, but people are fussing at you, and the church is divided. And all of you feel like your strength is flagging, and you feel a little discouraged in the Christian's ultramarathon. With endurance let us run the race.
Fix your eyes on Jesus.
Let's look at the last way the author describes how we are to run the race. There is a third thing we need to know and do, which is found in verse 2. We are to run the race "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." You see, my gaze cannot be on the great men and women of faith. My focus cannot be on those who have impacted my life as a Christian. I cannot look at my home pastor under whom I was called to preach. If; if I do, sooner or later, though he won't mean to, he will let me down. I cannot look at my godly mother and my dad who has gone on to be with the Lord. I can't focus on them, because they are imperfect people. I can't keep my gaze on Miss Bishop, wonderful though she was; she has clay feet like I do.
But there is one upon whom I can focus my gaze every moment of every day as I'm enduring this ultramarathon and running the Christian's race. I can and should keep my eyes, and so should you keep your eyes, constantly focused on Jesus. He will never let us down. If you look at others, you'll be discouraged; if you look at yourself, you'll be downhearted; but if you look at Jesus, you'll never be discouraged or downhearted. He will lift you up.
And so the author says that I am to fix my gaze and to look constantly at the one who is the author and finisher of my faith. What does that mean? The word author means that Jesus is the pioneer and leader of faith. He got it all started. I'm in this race because of him. Had he not paid the price for my sins, I wouldn't be here in this Christian life. He is the one who is the pioneer, the author of faith. And when I cross the finish line and enter heaven's gates, I will fall into his arms. He'll be there at the end! He's the finisher of faith. The intention of the Greek New Testament is to give the implication that he's the start, he's the finish, and he's with us every step in between.
So I am to fix my eyes on Jesus, the author of my faith, the perfecter of faith, who "for the joy set before him endured the cross." Now I know why I am to look to Jesus. He also ran the spiritual ultramarathon. He came into this world in the incarnation. He took on human flesh. He became what I am. He remained who he is—God—but he became who we are—man: the God-man. And he lived among us, for 33 years, a sinless life. He is the one to whom I am to look.
Notice the Bible says, "for the joy set before him he endured the cross." What does that mean—the joy set before him? I think that is a reference to the completion of the will of God for his life, knowing that God's will was that he might suffer and die for our sins. And don't think it wasn't Jesus' will as well; the Old Testament and New Testament authors make it crystal clear that the Son has also volunteered to be a part of this great plan of redemption, and he is the one who purchased us, who died on the cross in our place as a substitute for our sins, and he did so willingly.
Jesus, for the joy set before him, knew he would be fulfilling the will of the Father, but he also knew that when he emerged on the other side of the Cross through the resurrection, he would ascend and be exalted at the right hand of God. He is enthroned there, as my anchor; I am tethered to him, as are all of his children, and we will all be brought to glory with him. He is our forefather, as the author has previously said in chapter 6, verses 19 and 20. And so you see, he endured the Cross; he despised the shame; he suffered all of that! And then on the other side of his suffering, he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Having completed atonement, he rose from the grave, ascended to heaven, and he has sat down—he remains seated, he remains enthroned, and forever he reigns in heaven. Nothing can ever remove him, because he endured to the end for us.
That's why I love Jesus so much. There are so many reasons to love Jesus, aren't there? But one of the reasons I love Jesus so much is that he never asks me to do anything that he himself has not already done. He ran the race, he endured, and now he calls on me to run and to endure, and I am to keep my eyes fixed on him. The word for fixed describes not being distracted left or right or up or down, but rather, like a lover looking at his loved one, fixing our eyes on Jesus and no one and nothing else.
Now the author makes application. In verse 3 he says, "For consider him who has endured." Did you notice there is only one word that occurs in each of these three verses? It is the word endured. It is the concept of endurance. With endurance let us run the Christian's ultramarathon—this is the focus of our author. And now, because Jesus has endured, "consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself"—think of everything Jesus went through.
When he began his ministry, Jesus was tempted by the Devil for 40 days in the wilderness, he endured. When his own family didn't understand what he was doing and thought he was crazy, Jesus endured. When his early followers also misunderstood him, he endured. When those followers of his began to fall away, one after another, and no longer followed him, he endured. When those Pharisees told their lies about him, he endured. When those Sadducees connived in order to trap him, he endured. When Judas betrayed him for 30 measly pieces of silver, he endured. When he went to the Garden of Gethsemane and his sweat was like great drops of blood as he pled with his Father, facing the cross the next day, he endured. As the temple guard came and arrested him in the garden, he endured. As all of his 11 disciples scattered like mice fleeing a sinking ship, he endured. As he went through the mocking and the suffering of six illegal trials through that night and early into the next morning, he endured. As he watched Peter, with cursing, deny that he ever knew him, he endured. As he heard the crowds crying out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" he could have called 10,000 angels, but he endured.
As he experienced the trial before Pilate and saw Pilate wash his hands and give him over as an innocent man to the crowd to be crucified, he endured. When the soldiers mocked him, spat upon him, slapped him with their hands and then said, "Prophecy who hit you!" he endured. When they thrust a crown of thorns upon his brow in excruciating pain, he endured. When a Roman soldier raised his chain of horrors called a Cat o' Nine Tails and flayed the flesh off the back of the Lord Jesus during that time, he endured. When he carried that cross down the Via Dolorosa, outside of the city gate, he endured. As they laid him upon that cross on Calvary, and they nailed spikes into his hands and feet and lifted him up between heaven and earth to die as a common criminal in shame, he endured. As the two thieves who were crucified with him flung their invectives in his face, he endured. As the callous crowd around them called out, mocking, "Come down if you're the Messiah!" he endured. As Satan came against him with all his forces of hell on the cross, he endured. As God himself caused foul sewers of all our sin to be emptied upon him in one rushing, roaring, filthy, malodorous flood on the cross, in the midst of it all, he endured. Jesus endured all the way to death, and he cried out "It is finished!" to tell us, "I've paid in full!" He endured.
And they laid his body in a grave, and he arose! He arose! Up from the grave, he arose! With a mighty triumph o'er his foes! He arose, the victor of the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign! He arose! He arose! Praise God, he arose.
Forty days later, Jesus ascended to heaven and seated himself at the right hand of the throne of God, and there, as the King of kings and Lord of lords, he endures on our behalf. As Hebrews 7:25 says, "He ever lives to make intercession for us," and one day the trumpet will sound, and again will he return and call us to glory to be with him. He endures.
Therefore, the author of Hebrews says, "With endurance let us run the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God. For consider him"—bear your mind on him, focus on him today, think on him, live the rest of your life with that look to him—"who endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Hallelujah! What a Savior!
David L. Allen is dean of the school of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of Hebrews in the New American Commentary series (Broadman Holman).