Chapter 12 contains clues regarding the situation of the believers to whom this letter was written. They have been encouraged not to drift away (2:1), but in this chapter we perceive a community weary of persecution, struggling to stay strong in an increasingly hostile environment, but weakening perhaps to the point of giving up and turning away from their faith.
All that has been addressed so far comes to focus as these weary believers are encouraged to look not around them but at Jesus, their ultimate example of faithfulness and endurance in the face of hatred and humiliation. Not only is Jesus Christ superior to all that the Jews had previously known, but he also had suffered just as they were presently suffering—in fact, Jesus had suffered even more deeply. Yet Christ is now enthroned in the heavens, and the believers can trust that this will be their future as well.
Believers were also encouraged to look upon their suffering as though it were the discipline of a loving Father, not for wrong actions but for helping them to mature spiritually. God alone can take unbelievers’ hostility and turn it into an avenue of blessing and growth for his children. It would be important for believers to carry that perspective into the coming days.
12:1 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.NKJV After hearing the roll call of faithful believers throughout the centuries, illustrating true faith (chapter 11), the readers are challenged to also persevere in their faith. These faithful people from the past now stand as so great a cloud of witnesses. Hebrews uses the athletic imagery of a Greek amphitheater that has rows and rows of spectators, a “great cloud” or a large group.
They do not “witness” as if they were merely spectators, looking down from heaven and watching believers’ lives; instead, they witness through the historical record of their faithfulness that constantly encourages those who follow them. We do not struggle alone, and we are not the first to struggle with problems, persecution, discouragement, even failure. Others have “run the race” and crossed the finish line, and their witness stirs us to run and win also.
What an inspiring heritage we have! These great believers’ lives, examples, and faithfulness in God, without seeing his promises, speak to all believers of the rewards of staying in “the race.” This metaphor of a footrace run “with endurance” describes a marathon, a test of stamina and commitment. This provided an apt description of the lives of these suffering believers.
Three aspects to this “race” are set before all believers:
Preparation. The first step of preparation to run the race requires that each racer lay aside every weight. This had two meanings for the racers of the ancient world: the clothes that hold back (races often were run naked) or the fat or superfluous weight that would keep an athlete from running efficiently. Christians must be “spiritually trim” and able to run the race unencumbered (see 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:3-4). Many “weights” may not be necessarily sinful acts, but could be things that hold us back, such as use of time, some forms of entertainment, or certain relationships.
The second step of preparation requires believers to avoid the sin which so easily ensnares. Classical Greek runners would race nude so that a garment would not impede or slow them down. Spiritually speaking, Christians should put away any sin that might entangle, impede, or trip them up. Sins such as greed, pride, arrogance, lust, gossip, dishonesty, and stealing can cause believers to drift off spiritual course.
Participation. After Christians prepare, they must participate in the race—they must run. Hebrews gives examples of what it means to “run”: having faith, visiting prisoners, entertaining strangers, believing God, trusting God, worshiping God, knowing Christ, having courage, praying, encouraging others, and confessing sin. These can be summarized as loving God and loving others.
Perseverance. The race that we run is not our own. We did not select the course; it is God who marks it out before us. We should be running for Christ, not ourselves, and we must always keep him in sight. The “race that is set before us” refers to the trials Christians will experience as outlined in 12:4-11.
Finally, Christians persevere, running with endurance the race that is set before [them]. The writer has often referred to having endurance, being diligent, and persevering (see 2:1; 4:11; 6:11; 10:34, 36; 11:27; 12:7; 13:14). The Christian life involves opposition and suffering, requiring believers to give up whatever endangers their relationship with God, to run patiently, and to struggle against sin with the power of the Holy Spirit. To live effectively, believers must keep their eyes on Jesus. We will stumble if we look away from him to stare at ourselves or at the circumstances surrounding us.
Running a race requires preparation, participation, and perseverance. Christians prepare to run the race through daily training. We pray, read the word of God, and examine our life for habits that would impede us in the race. We participate in worship, and we persevere by maintaining a Christlike and God-honoring attitude even when the trials are strong and we feel weak.
12:2 Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.NRSV Jesus, our example, perfectly finished his race. Because he stands at the finish line, Christians should fix [their] eyes on Jesus, looking away from other distractions or options (see also 3:1). This is the same focused attention Moses had, as recorded in 11:26, “He was looking ahead to his reward” (niv). Jesus is the ultimate “hero of faith” as carried over from the list of heroes in chapter 11.
The name “Jesus” focuses on Jesus’ humanity; in the flesh, he faced suffering and thus is able to help us. Each member of the “great cloud of witnesses” can be inspiring, but Jesus provides the ultimate example. Jesus is described in two ways:
Pioneer. The Greek word is archegon; it means pioneer, pathfinder, or leader. Perhaps “champion” conveys the best meaning. Jesus is our hero, the first who obeyed God perfectly and thus began the new covenant (see also 2:10). He set the course of faith, ran the race first (6:20), and now waits for us to join him at the end, encouraging us all the way.
Perfecter of our faith. “Perfecter” is teleioten in Greek, meaning finisher, the one who brings us to our intended goal. Jesus is our perfecter, both because he was made the perfect High Priest through suffering and obedience (see 2:10, 5:8) and because he perfects us as we draw closer to him.
After explaining some of Jesus’ credentials and reasons for keeping our eyes him, Hebrews tells how Jesus must be the believers’ example in facing trials. He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Crucifixion was a horrible and shameful way to die. Jesus endured this disgraceful and degrading death; even more, he “disregarded” the shame it represented, despising and scorning it. The human shame amounted to nothing compared to the shame that Jesus felt when he took on the sins of the world. So great were the sins that even the Father had to turn his face away from his Son.
Yet Jesus endured all this suffering on account of the joy that was set before him. He kept his eyes focused on the goal of his appointed course, the accomplishment of his priestly work, and his seat at the right hand of God. Knowing that a great reward was coming for God’s people gave Jesus great joy. He did not look at his earthly discomforts, but he kept his eyes on the spiritual, invisible realities.
When the suffering was complete and Jesus had finished the race appointed for him, he took his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Again Hebrews returns to the focus of Psalm 110 (see commentary on 1:13; 8:1). Christ “sat down” because when he offered up his life, he completed his work. He no longer needs to provide sacrifices or pave a way to God. Just as Christ, our forerunner, received great reward for finishing the race before him and now sits enthroned by God, exalted to a place of highest honor, Christians will also share his reward when they finish the race set before them (see Luke 22:28-30). So, like Christ, we should persevere in times of suffering, looking to Christ as our model and concentrating on our heavenly destination.
12:3 Think about all he endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him, so that you don’t become weary and give up.NLT Christ endured great suffering to finish his race. As a result, he can be an inspiring example for believers who face suffering and persecution. When these believers were tempted to focus on their trials, even to the point of considering renouncing their faith, Hebrews encouraged them to think about all [Jesus] endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him. Christ was ridiculed, whipped, beaten, spit upon, and crucified. Even so, he did not give in to fatigue, discouragement, or despair.
By focusing on Christ and what he did on our behalf, we won’t become weary and give up. Trials can cause us to become discouraged and even to despair. During these difficult times, we can remember how Christ endured, and that endurance can inspire us.
Throughout the history of the church, meditation on the suffering of Christ has helped countless martyrs, prisoners, and those being persecuted. Christ’s suffering surpassed any suffering we humans might face.
We can also remember the great cloud of witnesses who demonstrated faith (chapter 11), and they can inspire us.
Facing hardship and discouragement, we must not lose sight of the big picture.
We are not alone; Jesus stands with us. Many have endured far more difficult circumstances than we have experienced.
Suffering trains us for Christian maturity, developing our patience and making our final victory sweet.