Let Us Run with Endurance, Looking to Jesus
A number of you remember our brother Andy, now serving in North Africa with his wife. When he was here Andy organized a group of us who would exercise early in the morning at Central Park. On cardio days Andy always had a lesson on how to run properly: drive the legs back from the hip; avoid over-striding; maintain good posture; keep your arms moving straight, not across the body; loosen your hands; inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Andy was great at helping us run well.
Then Andy left…and so did cardio days. There’s another race, though, that none of us have the option to quit. It’s the race God himself put us in when he made us Jesus-followers. In our text, Hebrews compares the Christian life to a race. Not a race in which we’re trying to beat other Christians; but a race we’re all running together. The race must be run well and with endurance. To receive the prize, we must cross the finish line.
Some in this church are considering quitting the race. Verse 12 describes their hands drooping. Their knees have grown weak. Their paths have, in some cases, grown crooked. Perhaps you’ve seen the clip of these two British marathon runners. Johnny Brownlee becomes so weak toward the end of the race, his legs just don’t work anymore. He’s weaving back and forth and about ready to collapse. His brother Alistair then comes and puts Johnny’s arm around his shoulder and helps him cross the finish line.
In writing Hebrews, this brother is coming alongside some weary and some wayward runners and putting their arms around his shoulders to help them cross the finish line well. God the Spirit inspired these words to help you cross the finish line well, to help you gain the prize of eternal rest in God’s presence. So let’s read what he says in verses 1-2; and then we’ll spend the rest of our time thinking about what it means.
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Main Exhortation: “Let us run…”
There’s only one main exhortation—you’ll notice it on the screen: let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. Everything else teaches us why or how to run the race well such that we finish. So let’s first consider the main exhortation: let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
The race set before us. We didn’t set a race before ourselves. We don’t mark out the course that we’re supposed to run. Someone else set a race before us, and that someone is the Lord. The Lord has marked out the course we run. Essentially, that race is doing the will of God. Look at 10:36, the only other place where this word “endurance” occurs in Hebrews. He says, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
That’s a really helpful cross-reference. “Let us run with endurance the race set before us;” “you have need of endurance, so that when you’ve done the will of God.” What’s the race? Doing the will of God. God marks out the course of obedience for us by his word—it includes things like “strive for peace” and “for holiness” in 10:14, where he begins to develop some more tangibles of what the race includes. That’s coming off verse 12 where he eventually returns to the race metaphor.
The race is about obeying God’s commands. Walking in his truth. As a husband, you run well when you love your wife as Christ loved the church. As a wife, you run well when you help and respect your husband. As parents, you run well when you raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. As a single man or woman, you run well when you exemplify undivided devotion to the Lord. As an employee, you run well when you do your work whole heartedly unto the Lord.
The race is doing the will of God. Not only does 10:36 help us identify the race; it also identifies the prize—“that you may receive what is promised.” All throughout Hebrews, what is promised is eternal rest in God’s presence, the better country, the glorious kingdom that can’t be shaken. The revealed will of God is the race; the prize is receiving everything glorious that he promises.
Of course, what we notice in 10:36 and also here—the race, or doing the will of God, requires endurance. The Christian life isn’t a short sprint. It’s more like a marathon. Moreover, think of the various obstacles we’ve encountered in Hebrews alone that makes the running very hard. The world entices us away from the race with various sinful pleasures and competing treasures—11:25. They may even have some immediate payoff, but they pull us off course.
In 2:14 Satan threatens people with the fear of death. We’ve read about enemies persecuting Christians, publicly exposing them to reproach and affliction—10:33. There’s not just enemies outside, but also the enemy within—sin can be deceiving in our own lives, 3:12 warns. Instead of running, doing the will of God, sin leads us into doing our own will. Also, we learned in 2:8 that everything is not yet in subjection to Christ. We suffer from the general brokenness of this world. Even worse sometimes is the long wait for God to fulfill his promises. How many of the saints in chapter 11 had to wait and wait and wait for God to come through?
Any part of that—or even all of it together at times—calls for endurance. How easy it is to grow sluggish in the race, or drift off the course set before us, or encounter things that make us want to quit. But if we want the prize, we can’t quit. Quitting isn’t an option in the Christian life. We must run the race with endurance. But how? How do we run? What will help us keep running? Where does this endurance come from? How will we make it and finish well? He adds three supporting clauses that answer these questions.
By listening to God’s witnesses
For starters we run with endurance by listening to God’s witnesses. First clause in verse 1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run.” A cloud of witnesses fits the race metaphor quite well. It recalls an arena with a multitude of witnesses. It’s the witnesses of chapter 11. However, we need to be careful in the way we understand how these witnesses work. The idea isn’t so much that they’re all sitting in heaven now cheering us onward. It’s more so that we’re looking to them. That is, God himself speaks to us in their example of faith.
Let me show you what I mean. Look at 11:1-2, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by [faith] the people of old received their commendation.” Meaning, God commended them. That word, translated “commendation,” is the same vocabulary behind “witnesses” in 12:1. So we could say it this way as well: “God himself bore witness to them in a favorable manner.” Then in 11:4 we find God again “commending Abel by accepting his gifts.” God bore a favorable witness to Abel, because Abel acted by faith. Then he gets to the very end in 11:39, and once again we find this: “all these, though commended through their faith.” Same word.
In other words, the whole list of examples in chapter 11—that cloud of witnesses—is God himself bearing witness to us of how faith endures. We look to his many testimonies. We look to all these examples in Scripture and they become for us God’s witnesses to spur us on in the same race. They become examples to us where we see God’s faithfulness play out in the saints who clung to him.
Doesn’t this give us another great reason to spend time in God’s word? How will you learn to run from God’s many witnesses, if you’re not reading them? If you’re not seeing in them what God wants you to see? By reading the Scriptures, we see someone like Daniel get thrown into the fire for not bowing to a statue; and through that God reminds us that he will keep us. He will strengthen us for moments like that. He will come through for us when the rest of the world chases idols.
By reading the Scriptures, we see someone like Rahab—not part of God’s people, living as a prostitute, no hope and without God. But then she hears of the Lord’s renown and sides with the spies; she gives herself to serve God’s kingdom advancing. God saves her. That story says, “Trust him. No matter your background, start running for his kingdom. He will be there for you, just like he was for Rahab and so many others.”
Listen, God has made a plan to redeem a people for himself across the ages. When you read their stories, you’re reading part of your own. God will not make them perfect apart from us, verse 40 says. Their story is part of yours—it’s the story of God saving his people and helping them finish the race well. Listen to his many testimonies and they will spur you on in your own running. In these witnesses, it’s as if God runs alongside you in the race encouraging you, “Remember what I did in Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Rahab and Samuel? I will do it through you too. Don’t give up. Come on, the finish line is almost there. My grace is sufficient. Trust me.”
By laying aside every weight and sin
Next, we run with endurance by laying aside every weight and sin. Look at the other clause in verse 1: “let us also lay aside [or better: having laid aside] every weight and sin which clings so closely…let us run.”
Now, there’s a couple ways to understand this. Both are valid. One way is to see “sin” as further defining “every weight.” So “every weight” is the metaphor; sin is really what he’s talking about. Another possibility, though, is that “every weight” and the “sin” are talking about separate types of things. That’s the way I’m taking it.
So, runners don’t line up at the starting line in their sweats and back-pack. As much as they can, they get rid of the extra weight. They also follow the rules. They don’t take shortcuts. They don’t trip up the other runners. They must run as the race official says. So also with the Christian life. So also with doing the will of God.
In this case, sin would be the more obvious to many of us—it’s lawlessness; it’s rebellion against God’s word. Other translations will use “entangling sin” here. Sin entangles us. It trips us up and hinders our running. It keeps us from doing the will of God. Earlier in 3:12 we learn that sin is deceitful and will lead to a hardened heart. All of us must always do everything we can to lay aside sin. As the saying goes, “Always be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” We run according to God’s rules.
What sins are keeping you from running the race well? I appreciated what Ben said in a sermon once: “The best of friends will call you out while your sin is still small.” What sins have fellow believers been pointing out in your life? Don’t ignore them—they’re trying to help you finish the race. What sins has the word of God been exposing in you? It’s sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the depth of our being. What evils in your heart has it exposed? We cannot run the race well, if we have not laid aside the sin that clings so closely to us. We must repent, lest we be disqualified.
But he also mentions “every weight.” If we take this as a separate type of hindrance, then “every weight” would be those things in life that in and of themselves aren’t sinful, but which some people find more of a hindrance to their walk than others. For example, I can’t handle caffeine. Why? Because when I drink caffeine it heightens my level of anxiety, such that I’m more likely to respond to other people and circumstances in sinful ways. It causes an afternoon crash such that I can’t be as productive as Jesus wants. And it hinders my sleep at night such that I’m less attentive to the word in my quiet times the next morning. For others of you, it may be the other way around. But for me to run well, I can’t do caffeine.
I can’t do the social media thing either—Facebook, Twitter. I tried Twitter for a while, but I had to lay it aside. I don’t have the time or the emotional bandwidth to keep up with all the stuff that gets said on there. Half of it isn’t even true. I’m too prone to letting something like that suck away my time from the people who are in front of me. Also, I’ve got to do what I can to starve my pride—it doesn’t need the “Likes” and the Retweets.” As long as it hinders me from doing God’s will, I put off social media.
Maybe it’s a job promotion you have to lay aside for now. One brother mentioned to me last Sunday how he was offered a position that came with greater benefits, but the demands would pull him away following Jesus’ course for him as a husband and church member. In order to run the race well, in order to run the course God marked out for him in Scripture, he had to set it aside for now.
Here’s the point. This forces us to ask maximalist questions. Don’t ask minimalist questions when it comes to following Jesus. “How many beers can I have and still be okay? What kind of movies can I watch and still be okay? How far can I go with my girlfriend and still call this a Christian relationship? How much do we have to give to be considered faithful members? How much sports and entertainment throughout the week is too much? What relationship can I leave unattended and still be okay? How comfortable can I keep my life and still follow Jesus?”
Wrong questions! Here’s the right question: “Will this help me run? Will this increase my joy in Christ? What will bring maximum impact for the gospel on this neighborhood? What will foster greater fervency in prayer? What will help in finishing the race well?” That’s the kinds of questions we ask—will it help me run! We’ve got to be more strategic, if we’re going to run well. Not, “What’s permissible,” or “What’s the big deal?” but “Will it help me run?” And if it’s not helping you run, lay it aside; replace it with things that will.
By looking to Jesus
So you’re in the arena. You’ve laid aside every weight, every hindrance, every sin to help you run well. You’re listening to God’s witnesses, and gaining more and more courage while you run. Now he speaks to the most important thing for a runner, locking your eyes on the goal of the race, Jesus Christ. The third clause in verse 2, “let us run…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
We could think of that only in terms of Jesus originating our personal faith and then also bringing our personal faith to completion. That’s true, but a bit more is happening. The same phrase, “the faith” last appeared in 11:39—“all these, though commended through the faith.” ESV has “their faith” and then “our faith.”
It’s the faith in Christ shared by the saints throughout all time. There’s only one faith shared by God’s people across the ages, and it’s faith in God’s special revelation that both pointed to Christ and was eventually fulfilled in Christ. So by being the “founder and perfecter of the faith”—not only does Jesus stand behind such faith that points forward to his work (like we saw in chapter 11); he also brings such faith to its proper goal in the new covenant. What we’ve laid hold of by faith, what all the saints of old laid hold of by faith—Jesus brings all that to its completion.
How? Through his life, death, resurrection, and reign. Notice where he goes next: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith [How did he perfect it?], who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” That’s how.
We see faith perfected in the man, Christ Jesus—he is God, but he took on a human nature, in which he had to trust the Lord (like we do) in the path of obedience. He ran the race and he ran it perfectly, completely, without ever wavering; and he did it even to enduring the cross. The cross isn’t simply where he suffered, bled, and died. The cross included something none of us could have endured—the full brunt of the wrath of God against our sins. We deserved the punishment, but he willingly laid down his life in our place. He took the punishment we deserved.
Moreover, he despised the shame. In Roman culture, you don’t have a more shameful exposure than a cross. Hung up half-naked, bloodied, mocked, left for the birds. Jesus deserved the highest seat of honor; he had every right to the throne and to be seen as glorious. But he chose to finish the race his Father set before him, which meant being treated like the scum of the earth on that cross for us. For sinners. For his enemies even, he chose that. And in choosing it, he despised it.
Listen to the suggested definition behind the word translated “despised”—“to consider something not important enough to be an object of concern when evaluated against something else.” How did Jesus endure all of that for enemies like us? Because when he evaluated the shame of the cross against the superior joy of glorifying his Father, the superior joy of seeing his Father glorified in a host of redeemed worshipers, he was strengthened to endure the cross. What is the shame of the cross, when he trusted that three days later the Father would expose the world’s folly and raise him from the dead? What is the shame when compared to being seated at the right hand of God? What is the shame when compared to a countless host of redeemed happy in the God who made them and bought them?
How did he endure the cross, the shame; how did he finish his race well? The joy set before him, that’s how. Some will translate this, “in place of the joy set before him.” Meaning Jesus refused the immediate joy within his grasp, like immediate rule on earth, immediate relief from pain. That’s one way to translate the preposition anti; and we can be patient with brothers and sisters that choose to do so.
However, I don’t think that’s the best translation. The only other use appears in 12:16 with Esau selling his birthright for the sake of a single meal. Also, the ongoing athletic imagery suggests that a prize is in view; and that prize is mentioned at the end of verse 2—“he is seated at the right hand of God’s throne.” Also, 10:34 and 11:26 give us two further examples within Hebrews where a superior joy empowers the saints to make some radical sacrifices—we’ll talk about that more in a minute. So I think the ESV nails it in saying “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross.”
Jesus did not choose the cross in spite of joy; he endured the cross because of the joy. He ran his course toward joy, true joy, lasting joy at the Father’s right hand. Joy in God’s presence, in God’s reward, fueled his perseverance. Joy fueled his love in the path of obedience, even when that obedience meant the cross, even when that obedience meant abandonment, being mocked, experiencing loneliness, experiencing betrayal, knowing tears in the pain of forsakenness, even death.
In following Jesus, some of you know those experiences right now. The way you run in the midst of the betrayal, in the midst of the darkness, loneliness, pain—the way you run is by looking to the joy set before you. Jesus is your example. Even more, though, he is your salvation. We look to Jesus as our example in the race—he is, as Hebrews says elsewhere, our forerunner. We also look to Jesus as our salvation. You must run, but no amount of your running saves you. But you will run well when looking to Jesus to save you. You will run well when looking to Jesus as your ultimate joy.
Isn’t that how Moses fought against the fleeting pleasures of sin in 11:25-26? This world will offer you all kinds of pleasures to get you off the race track, to get you running the wrong way. How will you overcome? How will you endure that you finish the race? By pursuing a superior joy. Look at 11:25, “[Moses chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” The pleasures of sin are real, but they are fleeting.
Moses knew the pleasures of God in Christ were superior, more rewarding. When we see them truly, the pleasures with God will compel us to lay aside the lesser, fleeting pleasures of sin. So, go for what’s truly satisfying. Lose everything to gain superior joy in Christ’s kingdom. Cultivate a heart for the glory of God. The way to fight sin and run well isn’t by looking at the sin but by looking to Jesus. He is the ultimate Treasure. He is the only lasting and true joy.
When you do, such a life will also enable you to endure hardships in the race. Remember how these Christians once responded to suffering? Look again at 10:32-34, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
There’s a church that’s running the race like Jesus. They knew they had a better possession and an abiding one. They knew the joy set before them in Jesus; and they were willing to lay it all down to see their brothers and sisters happy in Christ. “Stay here and protect my stuff, or go and gain heaven?” That’s an easy choice when you know the reward with Christ is superior. Superior joy with God leads us to run the race well.
It leads us to make radical sacrifices in the path of love. For the joy set before him, Jesus willingly laid down his life, he laid everything down. We’re reading Matthew with the kids in the evenings. Last week we read Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). Do you see the connection between joy and radical sacrifice? In his joy over the treasure, he sells all that he has to buy the field. He sells all that he has to make the better investment, to gain the joy of the kingdom of heaven.
Beloved, this is how we run—by listening to God’s witnesses, by laying aside every weight and sin, and by looking to Jesus. Perhaps you’ve found your hands drooping in the race. The trials that seem endless have caused your knees to start giving way. Maybe your steps are growing crooked, and you’re about ready to collapse. By the Spirit, Jesus comes to us in these words. He’s not just a King who finished his race and merely waits for us to finish ours. He comes to us in the race, puts our arm around him, and gets you across the finish line. He is seated at the right hand of God. Hebrews 4:16 says we have access to the throne of grace in times of need. By looking to him, not only will we find our example; we will find our help. His joy awaits us. Let us run with endurance.