The Christian life is often pictured as a race, and this verse comes from a passage that does just that. It continues, ‘let us run with patience the race that is set before us’. It’s useful to note the word ‘patience’ here also, which could equally be translated perseverance or endurance. We are to have an endurance/distance race in mind – like a marathon.
People who are serious about such races run with minimal light clothing. They run without weights and things that might get entangled. That’s what the writer to the Hebrews recommends here for the Christian runner in the race of faith.
What he means by that is explained by the wider context. The preceding phrase, ‘seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ points back to the whole of chapter 11. This is a long list of exemplary Old Testament runners of the race, whose life stories would be well known to the Hebrew readers. They are witnesses not so much in the sense they are watching us, cheering us along, which might partly be the image the writer wants to encourage us with, but more they are witnesses as in examples for us to follow. Last he crowns his list with the ultimate example of someone who has run the race before us, perfectly, ‘Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith’(Hebrews 12:2).
First the obvious entanglements to avoid – sin. Few would disagree that sin is to be avoided in the Christian life, and where present it seriously impedes our progress. If there is anything in our lives that might ensnare us in sin we are ruthlessly to ‘“cast it out”’(Mark 9:47) or ‘“cut it off”’(Mark 9:43). Moses is described as one who chose ‘rather to share ill treatment with God’s people, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time’(Hebrews 11:25), and Jesus was ‘in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin’(Hebrews 4:15). These obviously are the right examples to follow.
However, reading through chapter 11, the particularly striking thing about these great examples of faith is their laying aside of weights. These are not necessarily sins, but those distractions that it’s sometimes helpful to do without, leaving the committed Christian freer to run the race unencumbered. They are people characterised by what they’ve left behind and done without in order to pursue something more valuable. This is the true spiritual discipline of simplicity, not simplicity for simplicity’s sake, but a willingness to let go of our worldly attachments, and instead giving our time and energy to pursue something greater and far more important. They were ready to go ‘around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated… wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth’(Hebrews 11:37-38). They ‘confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’(Hebrews 11:13). They were not like the seed amongst thorns, ‘choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life’(Luke 8:14).
But doesn’t such a lifestyle sound rather heavy-going, even full of weights!? Yes, but a different kind of weight, training weights to build us up not encumbering weights to weigh us down spiritually. Just as there’s fruit from hard physical training, the joy of feeling our bodies working and developing to their full potential, its spiritual equivalent is our writer’s next subject: ‘It is for discipline that you endure… it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby. Therefore lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that which is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.’(Hebrews 12:7&11-13)
That brings us to an important factor in the psychology of faith runners. What encourages us when we ‘grow weary’(Hebrews 12:3) and are tempted to give up? Partly the joy of spiritual development producing fruit in our lives, but even more it should be our focus on the goal. Those in the Hebrew’s list hardly noticed their lack of worldly trappings, their gaze and hope was elsewhere. Abraham ‘looked for the city… whose builder and maker is God’(Hebrews 11:10), Moses ‘looked to the reward’(Hebrews 11:26), others were ‘seeking a country… a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’(Hebrews 11:14-16)
So, ‘seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,…’