Like the breath of God that brought life to Adam’s body, every word that God has breathed out is powerful and brings life to the hearer. The result, then, is that all of God’s words are profitable for the spiritual life of the people of God. We need them all.
And yet some passages speak more powerfully to a specific need, situation, or juncture in the life of the church. Recognizing that most of the New Testament is situational — written to a specific church with a specific need — the epistles have a specific historical background. The original recipients are our fellow believers, sharing in our faith across thousands of years and culture. For all our differences, the challenges we face are the same, and the theological answers we need are unabated in their power. And so the passages that most direct us in our present milieu are often those whose original context closely matches our own because the first recipients faced situations similar to our own.
“Let Us Run”
Hebrews 12 addresses people who face a newly resistant society. Some of the recipients have even suffered persecution — losing not their lives but suffering a sharp financial setback. They are now tempted to capitulate, and some of them will leave the faith altogether. And so the author calls them to finish the race — to keep on running, even when the resistance seems to mount with every passing year.
Move forward to today. What Christian among us does not feel as though the earth has given way beneath our feet before the tsunami of progressive public opinion? We wonder about the ongoing viability of our churches, institutions, and outreaches. If caught unguarded, we’re tempted to seek an easier way. And in the face of that, Scripture calls us not merely to exist, not merely to move forward, but to run.
Grammatically, this command is the core of the passage. In fact, it is the only command in verses 1 and 2. The other phrases simply link to it and tell us how. If we ask why we should run, the answer is that we have a cloud of witnesses. How to prepare to run? We should lay aside sin and every unnecessary impediment. If we aren’t sure what our experience will be when we run, we find it requires patience. If we ask where to run and with what focus, the answer is that we are to look to our chief example, Jesus Christ. But all of these are explanations for our most basic task — to run.
“So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”
Of course, there’s a further background to the command of chapter 12. The lives chronicled in chapter 11 are the cloud of witnesses, testifying to us as we run and affirming that we are hardly the first to run this race. And yet we might miss several notable features.
For example, if you plot a timeline of the individuals in chapter 11, something becomes immediately obvious. The chronicle starts with Abel and Enoch, only progressing to Moses by verse 23. By the time the author has reached Rahab (v. 31), still quite early in biblical history, most of the passage (85%) is already done. The author then breathtakingly covers a thousand years of history in one verse, including the largest group of OT books in one word — “the prophets” (v. 32).
The effect is to highlight just how many witnesses there are. Like a preacher who has entirely too much to share in the short time given him, the author has to stop short. Fully covering the lives of the witnesses would overflow from this chapter into volumes more. “And what shall I more say?” he asks us. “The time would fail me” (Heb. 11:32).
These witnesses exemplify the challenge of godly living, the faith that saw them through, and the fact that it brings great rewards. But the author actually chooses to call something else to our attention. It’s the fact that they all died waiting. The chapter ends reminding us that “these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.” Verse 13 explains further that “these all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them.”
That emphasis almost seems to cut against the point of the chapter, as though somehow their faith and trust were betrayed. But we simply have to ask what was the content of “the promises” (Heb 11:9, 11, 13, 17, 33, 39). While it certainly includes things such as the land (v. 8) and the resurrection (v. 19), the core is clearly the promised Messiah. From the beginning of the Old Testament (Gen. 3:15) to the end (Mal. 3:1–4), the longing and hope of every Old Testament believer was for this One. You can almost hear their collective cry — “When will He come?” Their struggle, suffering, and waiting stretched across the centuries, as they lifted up their eyes in hope for the promised Savior.
“Looking unto Jesus”
And so do we. The final encouragement of Hebrews 12:1–2 is that we look to Jesus. We could legitimately say that our experience of waiting is completely different than theirs. They lived a life of faith, waiting for Him to come. We know who He is, what He did, and even the theological significance of His life and death. To use a kind of argument that very much fills the book (Heb. 2:1–3; 4:14–16; 9:13–14; 10:28–31; 12:18–29), we are only the more responsible for our greater knowledge.
But the passage actually seems to be emphasizing our continuity with them. They endured. So must we. Their endurance was only because of faith, as is ours. And most importantly, the object of our faith and theirs is the same — Jesus Christ. As they waited for Him to be born, we wait for Him to return. As they put their faith in what He would do, we rest in what He did.
Because profoundly, He is not just the object of our faith. In this great cloud of witnesses, He is also the climax — the supreme Witness above them all. They were remarkable examples of faith, of course. But they are only dim reflections of the supreme Witness. He is not only the One we believe in, but also the perfect example of what it looks like to believe, because our great hope, the object of our faith, also Himself ran the race.
There is, then, a double significance to what it means to “look to Jesus.” Any true faith is faith in Him. To be a Christian is to lift our eyes in wholehearted faith in what He did and who He is. He is, after all, the “author and finisher” of our faith. But we can just as accurately speak in terms of following Him. In yet another type of argument common in Hebrews, everything we endure, He Himself faced and overcame. And so we run following in the footsteps of the One who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
All of this calls us to understand better both the passage at hand and what it means in the present challenge. Brian Collins helps us exegetically in Hebrews 12:1–2; Chris Pennington delivers the theological foundation; Robert Vincent covers historical context; Jonathan Threlfall challenges our disposition or attitude; and Greg Baker leaves us with practical application.
Because Scripture is always the most relevant thing we could say in a crisis. Within all of Scripture, Hebrews 12:1–2 stands out as one of the more striking parallels to our historical moment. Commanded to run, reminded of those who came before, and ultimately looking to Jesus Christ as the supreme example, we must fulfill our part in our time, testifying that it’s worth it. It’s time to lift our eyes from the moral chaos, pick up our feet from the sinking sand, and put away the unnecessary distractions. It’s time to run.
Dr. Joel Arnold serves in the Philippines under Gospel Fellowship Association. He and his wife, Sarah, have three children. Among other ministries, Joel teaches at Bob Jones Memorial Bible College in Quezon City.
FrontLine January/February 2016 | VOLUME 26 | NUMBER 1
Theme: Run with Patience
Running with Our Eyes Fixed on Jesus
Jesus is our final and climatic example of One who ran the race with an eye on the promised reward.
Understanding and Responding to Persecution
We must let Scripture set our expectations and inform our response.
Pressed to Prosper, Propagate, and Pray
In God’s magnificent armory of instruments skillfully designed for His people’s good, an entire corridor is dedicated to the bittersweet gift of suffering.
Rethinking America’s Shrinking Christianity
Is every change a wave that threatens to dash us against the rocks?
The Race That Is Set Before Us
The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples would be even better than having the physical presence of Jesus with them on earth.
The Fruit of Fervent Prayer
Mary MacGregor Thomas
Mail Bag & News from All Over
On the Home Front
Wit & Wisdom
Very Clear Biblical Teaching
David C. Innes
At a Glance: Habakkuk: From Consternation to Confidence and Contentment in God
On Language & Scripture
Mark L. Ward Jr.
Answered Prayers and Open Opportunities
The Necessity of Hard Work
(Originally published in FrontLine • Jan/Feb 2016. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- We sometimes speak of those recorded in Hebrews 11 as though they were selected specifically because their faith shone the brightest. But many remarkable figures go unmentioned (Daniel, Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others). The author’s point in his selections is not so much to gather a “hall of faith” from the best examples but to choose examples from only a small part of biblical history, implying that the list could be tremendously longer if it continued (c.f. Acts 7). [↩]
- There are several reasons for this. (1) The coming Messiah is at the core of all of the OT promises (Luke 24:27; Heb. 11:19). (2) This is also the fundamental argument of this book — Jesus Christ is the superior fulfillment of everything the OT anticipated. (3) The ultimate and final witness that heads the entire list is Jesus Christ Himself (Heb. 12:2). [↩]