The two verses in the beginning of chapter twelve of Hebrews are a favorite to many Bible readers and scholars. Sometimes when things become a favorite, they are twisted and often misunderstood. This paper examines what was happening at the time the letter was wrote and interacts with the background and context. It also looks at the grammar and the content within this certain passage of scripture. As with all things that become familiar, there is a need to re-examine certain ideas that become engrained in the mind.
Much ignorance surrounds the background information regarding the recipients of this letter as well as the author of this letter. What is known about this Letter, and especially Hebrews 12:1-2, is that it has been an encouragement to many Christians and is full of deep doctrine and theology. Below, in the first section, an attempt is made to show what is known about the background and context of this letter. Since little is known church leaders should not be overly dogmatic over their views and hold to them too tightly.
The writer of this letter is a mystery. Historically, many people have been credited for writing it: Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Clement of Rome, Philip, Priscilla, and Jude.(Hubbard) No name is assigned to the author in this paper. The historical audience of this letter is also mysterious. It is likely that the audience was near Rome or familiar with the happenings of Rome. From the letter it can be deduced that, “Wherever the readers are located, they resonate with the intensely Greek rhetoric and interpretation of Judaism that come naturally to this author.(Keener)” The recipients had to have been familiar with the Old Testament to understand the content of the letter. The Letter to the Hebrews was most likely written in between 60 and 70 A.D.(Keener) Lastly, is can be understood that the audience of this letter was probably familiar with persecution because of their open faith in Christ, especially the theft of their property.(Heb. 10:4)
Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages the recipients of the letter to lay aside sin and endure the race while keeping their eyes upon Jesus. The two verses read, “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, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Chapter 12 begins with the word “therefore.” As the old and popular saying goes, “If you see the word therefore, look and see what it’s there for.” The Author’s implementation of the word “therefore” intentionally ties what is about to be said in with what was said in the previous verses, and in this case, section. Chapter Eleven, commonly called the “Faith Hall of Fame,” spends a fair amount of space dealing with people in the Old Testament who had great faith. More specifically, the people of great faith mentioned endured various adversities. It is at the beginning of chapter twelve that the writer shifts his focus from “historical recital to pastoral exhortation.” With the shift from recital to exhortation, the author also changes his word usage and begins to use the word “we” and “us.” The “we” and “us” that the writer is referring to is a Christian believer. A non-Christian would not be in the race. (MacArthur)
By using the words, “Therefore we also,” the author is bridging the gap between the historical people of great faith and the audience of faith filled believers to whom he was writing. The writer also “Challenges this community to recognize themselves as part of the great host called to live by faith.(Guthrie)” It is only after reading the previous section that the reader can understand who the witnesses are that the author mentions.
The author of Hebrews uses the metaphor of a race to help the recipients better understand the Christian life. The race metaphor would have been familiar for the audience of the letter.(Keener) The race in question is also to be understood as a long distance race, not a short sprint, since there is a repeated call for endurance in this race. Not only is there a race but there are runners in the race. Runners, it is assumed, are to be trained and prepared for a long distance race. An untrained and out of shape runner could in by no means complete a long distance race, let alone win one in a competition. As with most races, there are also various types of witnesses.
The cloud of witnesses is a direct reference back to the people mentioned in chapter eleven as well as all who have gone before and lived by faith. George Guthrie gives a good explanation as to of what nature these witnesses are and were:
“Some, in light of the race imagery, have understood this confession to mean that the countless thousands of God’s faithful throughout the ages now sit in the ‘stands’ of eternity, observing Christians as they seek to live for Christ in the world. The words ‘witness’ (martys) certainly can carry the meaning ‘spectators,’ as in 1 Timothy 6:12, and ‘surrounded’ (perikeimenom) brings to mind the ancient amphitheater with its tiered rows of seats. However, the author intends more from this image than to conjure the faithful of the ages as passive spectators. Rather, they are witnesses in the sense that they bear witness to the Christian community of God’s faithfulness and to the effectiveness of faith.”(Guthrie)
With the focus being on God’s faithfulness and effectiveness of the faith, shown in the examples given in chapter eleven, the writer seeks to motivate the recipients of the letter.
The author seeks to elicit in the readers the type of motivation that would cause them to lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares, and to endure the race. Building off the race imagery, the removing of weights would bring to the mind of these readers the thoughts of removing excess clothing so that they could run uninhibited.(Keener) Some of these weights may not even be inherently sinful, but rather something that can distract or become a hindrance.(Bruce) The author also does not interrupt his discourse to mention specific sins that need to be laid aside, but rather he includes all sin by using the word sin. All sin is to be understood as hindering a person from running a race with endurance.
Endurance is a key word and topic throughout this section in the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer mentions endurance in three consecutive verses and once more. (vv. 1-3,7) The purpose of laying aside the weights and sin is so that the runner can run with endurance. When running a long distance race, even runners today do not wear bulky boots or a sweater. Runners today, as with the runners in this historical context, wear only what is necessary. Without endurance, the race a Christian is on will never be completed.
After establishing the Old Testament witnesses and other witnesses, the writer of Hebrews brings up the ultimate witness; Jesus. Jesus fits both uses of the word witness; He is both watching the Christian run the race and a witness to God’s faithfulness. In the context of the race, the runner is to keep his or her eyes upon Jesus. The runner is not to be looking at the pathway or looking behind him, but looking solely at Jesus. Jesus is the only person or thing deserving the attention of the eyes. The Christian is not to look at themselves or other people running but to Jesus.
It is by Jesus’ example that the Christian is to run the race. Jesus ran the race perfectly. By using the words “author and finisher of our faith,” the writer is stating that Jesus completely accomplished everything necessary for the new covenant faith to become real.(Guthrie) The full accomplishment took place when Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice. Jesus did not die the atoning sacrifice kicking and screaming, but rather, saw the results that it would bring and did it out of joy. The death was not a pleasant experience. The writer records that Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame. In both Roman and Jewish culture, a death on a cross was considered shameful.(Keener) The Romans used the cross as an execution instrument, especially for criminals and slaves. The Jews pointed back to the Scriptures where it was written, “His body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deut. 21:23)
The writer of Hebrews wants to draw upon Jesus’ endurance as to why the Christian can have endurance. The author, by using “The simple personal name ‘Jesus’ shows that the accent is upon his humanity, and especially his endurance of pain, humiliation, and disgrace of the cross.” Since Jesus endured, so can any Christian in his own race. Jesus was the finisher of the faith by overcoming the death on the cross and rising again, hence why the author included that Jesus sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus endured the momentary shame but that was nothing compared to His exaltation to the right hand of God. Note that the author regularly makes slight references and parallels back to Psalm 110 within the Book of Hebrews; the same is done here. The writer is once again calling his audience to look past the momentary trials and circumstances and look to the rewards, just as Jesus did.
The application of these two verses in Hebrews to the church today is great. As the last days draw nearer and many throughout the world are beginning to experience increased persecution, this verse can be a challenge and a comfort. Like the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, Christians today can also recognize and see that witnesses abound and surround. Like the people receiving the letter, Christians today can look at God’s faithfulness to the believers who have gone before. Christians today can look at the examples set in the Scriptures but also look at the believers who have endured similar persecution after the canon of Scripture closed. There is a need for endurance today as much as there was at the time of the letter. All Christians throughout time have a race to run. There is also a need for all believers to strip themselves of unnecessary hindrances to finishing the race. Ultimately, the Christian should keep his or her eyes upon Jesus, who set the perfect example and enabled everyone to complete the race.
Pastors and preachers today can call with conviction upon listeners to prepare to run and to run the race every Christian is set to run. This would be a great passage for teachers, preachers, and church leaders to connect the local church to the universal church while at the same time connecting it with the historical church. Christians must remember there are examples to look toward in the Bible. This is also an opportunity to get Christians interested in reading God’s Word. It is stories like these than captivate the mind of the believer. The church can learn from the examples set and receive motivation.
Like the people in the faith hall of fame, and especially Jesus, Christians today need to look to the faithfulness and the promises of God. F.F. Bruce stated it well,
“’The joy set before him’ is not something for himself alone, but something to be shared with those for whom he died as sacrifice and lives as high priest. The throne of God, to which he has been exalted, is the place to which he has gone as his people’s forerunner. That is the goal of the pathway of faith; the pioneer has reached it first, but others who triumph in the same contest will share it with him.”(Bruce)
Every person apart of the church of God has the hope of sitting on the throne with Christ.(Rev. 3:21) Preachers much preach that there is a promise of God and that Christians too can run this race with joy, knowing that there are better things to come.
In conclusion, the background, context, content, and application of this passage were examined. These factors should always be looked at when interpreting a biblical passage. There is throughout this passage of scripture a call to endure. The main idea presented in this paper is that these two verses call for people to endure the race before them by laying aside sin and most of looking unto Jesus.
Bruce, F F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Rev. ed. The New International Commentary On the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, ©1990.
Guthrie, George H. Hebrews. The Niv Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1998.
Hubbard, David Allan, and Glenn W. Barker. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 13, Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson. 2011-, n.d.
Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1993.
Lane, William L. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 47b, Hebrews 9-13. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
MacArthur, John. Hebrews. The Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, ©1983.