29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions,34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 18th August 2019 at Manningtree Methodist Church, Essex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
You may find this hard to believe when you look at me, but this year it is twenty years since I took up running. I had never really enjoyed physical activity at school – with the possible exception of swimming and sailing. My least favourite activity was the annual cross country. My spine shivers at the thought of our annual sessions at Priory Park in Reigate. When I started at the University of Essex in 1999, though, I realised that I had to do some kind of physical activity, otherwise my body would suffer the consequences. So it was that I took up running, and actually discovered that I quite enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started running races purely for pleasure, however. I ran a couple of 10ks, and then decided that the time had come for a real challenge, and I signed up to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London. It was certainly a challenge! I completed the course in 2 hours and 7 minutes, a time I was very happy with. The mix of emotions as I crossed the line was complex to say the least! I was exhausted and worn out, but I felt so thrilled at the accomplishment. Throw in the thousands of spectators who thronged around the finish line, spurring us on, and it’s not surprising that I felt tears falling down my face!
In today’s passage from the letter to the Hebrews, the writer talks about the Christian life as a race. Each of us, the writer suggests, has our own unique Christian journey, the culmination of which is our future resurrection and life in God’s new creation. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that we complete this particular race!
I want to look particularly at the first three verses of chapter twelve of Hebrews this morning, so do have your Bibles open there, should you have one. I will consider three points. Firstly, what do we need to throw off to run this race? Secondly, how should we run this race, and thirdly, where should we set our gaze as we run?
Firstly, then, what should we throw off to run the race? Verse 1 tells us that we should “throw off everything that hinders.”
When preparing for a race, an athlete thinks carefully about the clothing that they should wear. In the ancient world, of course, athletes generally competed naked, which is not something that is generally recommended in races today! Modern athletes do think carefully about what they wear, however, opting for light weight shorts, and t-shirts or vest tops. In short, clothes that do not impede movement.
Having said this, every year in the London Marathon there’s a person who opts to race in an old diving suit, or a suit of armour or something similar, but this is not to be recommended! Outlandish costumes greatly hinder the runner’s progress in the race. Such competitors generally come last, if they even complete the course.
The writer of Hebrews thinks along these lines when he says that we need to “throw off everything that hinders.” It is crucial that we complete this particular race. The Christian life is not like a Saturday afternoon fun run. It’s deadly serious. It’s quite literally a matter of life or death. If we complete this particular race we gain our salvation, and spend eternity in God’s new creation. If we fail to make it, though, we face a rather bleaker prospect.
We don’t want to run this particular race in a suit of armour. We don’t want anything hindering our ability to complete this race. It is crucial, therefore, that we throw off everything that hinders us, anything that could make it tricky for us to reach the finish line.
So what could hinder us in our Christian life? A focus on accumulation of money, or belongings, or stuff. Friends who are not helpful as we strive to live a life that honours Christ. Careers that are so utterly consuming that we have no time to study the Bible or spend time in prayer. Hobbies that are incompatible with our core beliefs. Anything that might prevent us from finishing the Christian life, and pull us off the course that God has marked out for us.
If we find ourselves encumbered by of these hindrances, we should throw them off. We should discard them. We should cease and desist. None of these things are important. What is of prime importance is our ability to finish the race marked out for us.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews continues in chapter twelve verse one by telling Christians that they should throw off “the sin that so easily entangles.”
I remember when I was younger there was a craze for obstacle courses. This was before such things got more grown up and more extreme, before the creation of events like Tough Mudder. One of the trickiest obstacles was always something that I think was called a cargo net, a large mesh laid across the ground. I was never really sure whether to go over or under the net, but sensed that going around it probably was not allowed! Going over it always struck me as the easiest option. That was until I got some way across when the net almost seemed to grab my ankles, and I would get completely tangled up and end up falling flat on my face.
This is the imagery that springs to mind when I think of sin that entangles. Sin doesn’t look like it has the power to end our race, but it does. Sin can grab us and slow us down. Sin can lure us off course. Sin can infiltrate our minds and lead us to question our faith. At its worst, sin can completely ensnare us, causing us to fall out of the race that is the Christian life, preventing us from completing the race that God has marked out for us.
The key, then, is to strive to avoid sin at all costs. It might seem like just a bit of fun. What’s the harm of this one little sin, we might think. A little deviation from God’s plan for our lives might seem inconsequential, especially viewed over a lifetime of adherence to Christ’s teaching, but sin has the potential to ensnare us, to drag us away from Jesus, and to prevent us from gaining our salvation. If we are to maximise our chances of completing the race, therefore, we are urged to throw off any sin that has the potential to entangle us.
Secondly, then, how should we run the race that God has predetermined for us?
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it succinctly in 12:1 – we should run the race with perseverance.
When I began training for my first half marathon, I was quite shocked at how great the difference is between running a 10k race and a half marathon. Every time I clocked over an hour and a half of running, I found myself thinking, gosh, 13 and a half miles really is a long way! That’s why a carefully planned training regime was so important. If I just went out and hoped for the best, then I would clearly fail. I needed to build up my endurance. I needed to persevere.
That’s true for the Christian life too. The race marked out for us is long. It lasts the whole of our lifetime. We’re not participating in a short, sharp sprint, but a lengthy ultra marathon, with any luck stretching over many decades. It’s important that we remain on track during the whole of that life time. We need to build up our endurance. We need to persevere.
Of course, there will be times when staying on track comes easily. There are times in our life when our race might take us through periods of great joy and great happiness, times when we feel close to Christ and richly blessed. At times like these it is relatively straightforward to run the race marked out for us.
There will inevitably be times, however, when we won’t feel so blessed, when life takes us through dark canyons of despair. Times when work gets tricky, or family life becomes hard. Times when we lose those nearest and dearest to us. Times when we begin to question whether a God of love could really exist at all, so unloving does the world seem.
Even in these periods, though, we need to keep going. We need to persevere. This is when we need to keep slogging our way through life, trying our hardest to remain on track, doing our utmost to stay rooted in our relationship with Christ.
Jesus, of course, found there were times when real perseverance was necessary just to keep going. He experienced despair himself. He knows what it means to live through the darkness. He knows that it takes perseverance to stay rooted in our faith. 12:2 reminds us that Jesus endured the cross. Verse three reminds us that Jesus endured great opposition from sinners. He knows exactly the endurance that is required to make it to the end of this race.
It is at the bleakest times in our lives when we would do well to remember that as we run our race, we are surrounded by “such a great cloud of witnesses,” as verse 1 says. Those who have gone before us are all cheering us on in our Christian life, urging us to make it through to the finish line. The writer reminds us of some of these people in chapter eleven. People like the Egyptians who made it across the Red Sea. People like those who marched around the walls of Jericho, to see them fall after seven days. People like Rahab, like Gideon, like Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.
The writer expounds on some of the harsh realities faced by our forebears. He singles out those who were tortured, who faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoning, being sawn in two, death by the sword, who were destitute, persecuted and mistreated.
These people persevered through to the end of the race marked out for them, and are amongst that great crowd of believers cheering us on the reach the end of our race.
What’s more, it may well be that it was their suffering that enabled them to reach the finish line of the race at all. In Romans 5, Paul says that “we also glory in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope.” Perseverance comes as a direct result of suffering, according to Paul. Therefore when we find ourselves finding our race tough, that’s when we should knuckle down, push through, and persevere. If we persevere, we will develop character, and if we develop character, then we will have hope in the future life that God has planned for us.
Our forebears persevered through their suffering because they had faith in God – faith based on what they knew of his character and his promises. They lived before the fulfilment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:39 says that “none of them received what had been promised.” He continues, “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
We are in a much more fortunate position. We can persevere through our suffering because we live on a post-resurrection world. We know of Jesus, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection. We have seen that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and therefore we can have real hope in our future, in the conclusion of the race marked out for us.
We should persevere in the race marked out for us because of the hope we have in our future resurrection. We should persevere through both good times and bad times trusting in Jesus, and seeking to follow him.
This links into the third and final element of this passage that I would like us to consider this morning, that is verse 2, where the writer urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Every night, before Daniel and Lily, my children, go to sleep, either Claire or I read them a story. This is a tradition that we took on from our parents. I remember my mum reading me pretty much everything that Roald Dahl wrote, as well as the complete Chronicles of Narnia series. I also vividly remember my mum reading me the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember being fascinated by the stories of Wilder and her family as they crossed America, part of a wave of settlers colonising the United States of America. She was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word – namely, a person who was amongst the first to explore or settle a new country or area.
And this is what we have in Jesus. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith because he was the one who brought it about. He was the one who defeated death. He was the one who first entered the kingdom of heaven. He acts as pioneer because it is he who is not just among the first, but the very first human to settle God’s new country, his new creation. If we have faith in him, we will join him in God’s new creation. Before we can settle there, however, we need a pioneer to go before us. And that is Jesus.
Without a pioneer to go before us, without a pioneer to establish our right to settle in God’s heavenly kingdom, there would be no way for us to enjoy eternal life. Without Jesus’ pioneering work, we simply would not be able to access heaven. It is only because of Jesus that we can enjoy this immense privilege.
Jesus is able to act as our pioneer precisely because he lived the life of a man here amongst us. If he had remained in heaven with his Father, then God’s wrath against us as sinners would be left unsatisfied, the punishment for our sin unborne, and consequently we would have faced the full weight of God’s anger at the time of our judgement. Only as a consequence of the earthly life of Jesus can we be free of our sin.
This is why we should fix our eyes on Jesus. He is our pioneer, preparing our place in heaven in advance for us.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews also calls Jesus the perfecter of faith in verse two. He lived a perfect life, and as a consequence was able to perfect our inadequate faith by taking the punishment that was ours on the cross. He was the very first person to run this face in its entirety, from its beginning at birth to its completion with his ascension into heaven. Jesus endured the cross during his race. But he scorned its shame, we’re told. The prospect of being with his father in heaven, the prospect of enabling us to have access to God’s heavenly kingdom, meant that the humiliation he faced on the cross paled into insignificance. The future hope he has far outweighed the suffering that he confronted in his earthly life.
This is why we should fix our eyes on Jesus. He is the perfecter of our faith, taking the punishment that should have been ours on the cross.
Jesus bore our punishment with anticipation of joy ahead of him. That joy would see Jesus take his rightful position, seated at the right hand of the throne of God. The fact that he is seated, and not standing, shows that Jesus’ work has been completed. He has done all that was required him. He has run the race that God the father had marked out for him, persevering against every adversity, and as a result pioneered the way to eternal life for all those who follow him.
If we are to complete our race, the writer to the Hebrews tells us in verse three that we should, “consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
If we fix our eyes on Jesus, if we consider his perseverance through his suffering, then we will be equipped to persevere in the race that God has marked out for us.
What does this mean in practice, though? What does it mean, to fix our eyes on Jesus?
I would suggest that it means we strive to make him the focal point of our attention. He should never be far from our thoughts, from our plans, from our actions. We should follow the examples that he laid down for us, striving to emulate his pattern for living. We should take to heart his teaching and be guided by all that he has taught us. And we should accept his death and resurrection, trusting that, since he has pioneered the way to God’s eternal kingdom for us to follow, we too will experience the joy of resurrection.
If we fix our eyes on Jesus and his pioneering work, then we will not grow weary in our Christian life, we will not lose heart. If we place him at the heart of our lives, and strive to follow him, then we will be spurred on to follow the race set out for us. We will know that we have “joy set before us,” which will leave any earthly concerns to pale into insignificance. Whatever suffering, whatever we have to endure for our faith is a mere triviality compared to the prospect of our future glory. We should endure all that the world throws at us, persevering in our faith, looking to the joy that awaits us after death.
There’s a lot to challenge us in this passage from Hebrews. The imagery of running a race marked out for us by God is a useful way of thinking of our personal journey of faith. Just like any race, there will be moments where we will feel on top of the world, when we will feel happy with our progress, and thrilled by the experience. But there will also be points when we feel exhausted, worn out, and unable to go on.
It is of the greatest importance, though, that we complete this race. The prize on offer here is not just a medal, but a place in God’s new creation, an eternity with Jesus.
So what must we do to ensure that we run this race to its conclusion?
We need to throw off everything that hinders us in the race – anything that is incompatible with Christian living, and we need to throw off the sin that enmeshes and entangles.
We also need to run the race with perseverance, remembering that there is a great crowd of believers watching us and cheering us on.
We must also ensure that we fix our eyes on Jesus, remembering that he is our pioneer. We should strive to emulate Jesus, follow his teaching, and accept him as our personal saviour.
If we bear all of this in mind, then we will be in an excellent position to complete our race. And what a prize will be waiting for us at the end.