Hebrews chapter 12 begins with a statement referring back to the great “Hall of Faith” in chapter 11: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” The writer of Hebrews uses an athletic event to compare the Christian life to a marathon. Because of this illustration, some people interpret the cloud of witnesses as spectators, watching our marathon race in some angelic stadium along with our departed, believing, loved ones.
This is not the case. Rather, these saints are “witnesses” not because they are currently witnessing our lives but because their lives are a testimony to us of their faith in God. The use of the term “cloud” is fascinating, since these witnesses are presently without resurrected bodies.
According to Daniel 12:2, these Old Testament saints are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies at the second coming of Messiah. With this great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, encouraging us by their faith, we are to “lay aside…the sin which so easily entangles us.” An encumbrance is not necessarily sin, but anything that might weigh us down and hinder our running the race effectively.
Many years ago, Moody Monthly printed a cartoon that effectively communicated what the writer of Hebrews was saying here. It was a picture of a runner in a race trying to run while carrying two large suitcases. Believers will sometimes try to run the Christian race while holding on to their baggage from the past. To run our race effectively, we need to leave our baggage behind. We also need to “lay aside the sin that entangles us.” The Jewish believers receiving this letter were in danger of leaving the faith. It was like trying to run the race with one’s running shoes tied together, which is what the word translated as “entangles” implies.
The writer continues: “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Imagining the believer’s life to be a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash, he tells us how we can finish that race well. A marathon runner needs to pace himself so that he has enough stamina to finish.
I remember watching the New York Marathon on television and seeing an unknown runner take the lead. He stayed in front for quite a few miles, but eventually, the other runners caught up and passed him. He had not run the race with endurance; he had not properly paced himself.
In Hebrews 12:2, the writer exhorts us to run while “fixing our eyes on Jesus” and by keeping our eyes on the goal of finishing well. Yeshua (Jesus) needs to be our primary example of endurance. By referring to Yeshua, the author is emphasizing our Lord’s humanity, especially in regard to His endurance of the pain, humiliation, and shame of the cross. The writer of Hebrews, nevertheless, describes these challenges as “the joy set before Him.” The great joy that Jesus experienced was the joy of obediently submitting to the will of His Father. He finished His race victoriously “and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The picture of Him sitting at the right hand of His Father implies a time of rest that follows the completion of His task, which, for Him, was the redemption of mankind through His death, burial, and resurrection.
Finally, as a further means of encouragement— and also providing an insight into the struggles of these particular Jewish believers—the writer of Hebrews says in 12:3, “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself.” They were to meditate on Jesus and the cross, so that they would not over estimate the harshness of their own struggles in their faith. By doing so they would “not grow weary and lose heart.”