Five Minute Devotions: Hebrews 12
Hebrews 12 concludes Hebrews 11’s list, calling all those people a “large cloud of witnesses” that should motivate us to run our own race with endurance. He reminds his listeners that the pain that comes from endurance is for our benefit (Hebrews 12:1-13). The latter part of the chapter is a grave warning to not reject the grace that God has given (Hebrews 12:14-29).
Whenever we see the word “therefore” in Scripture, we immediately should look back to see what it’s there for. In this case, the author brings meaning to the list of individuals mentioned in chapter 11, saying that they serve as a large cloud of witnesses for us.
One popular interpretation of envisions those heroes of the past watching and waiting in the stands. The imagery of clouds might conjure up an idea of heaven and those people watching us below. In this view, these faith warriors are our spectators and cheerleaders, encouraging us to persevere.
While this is not a bad analogy, it isn’t quite what the author had in mind. Instead, like a legal witness, these people are telling their testimony. Our encouragement and motivation comes from understanding their experiences.
Let Us Run
If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you’ll notice that in the speed events—swimming, perhaps, in particular, every effort is taken to cut down on drag. Participants wear the smallest, tightest uniforms they can get because any sort of resistance is going to slow them down.
Ancient athletics were similar. One’s normal everyday clothing was long and flowing and not easy to run in. Men would “gird their loins” by pulling the back of the robe through their legs and tying it in a knot. But in professional racing, you didn’t just gird your loins. You went naked. The Greek word gymnos, where we get the modern word “gymnastics,” means naked. (I work as a gymnastics instructor as well, and whenever the students complain about the length of the shorts in our competitive wear, I remind them of this.)
The image that the author is giving to us is of an athlete throwing off everything holding them back. They’re stripping down, getting naked, and just running for their lives as fast as they can. Our sin clothes us like a robe. It makes running a race incredibly difficult and unwieldy. The only way to win is to take it off and let it go.
Eyes on the Prize
More than once I’ve seen a runner approach the finish line in first place, look back behind them—or look out to the crowd—and that’s all it takes from them to trip or falter or slow. And that’s it. Race over. They took their eyes off the finish eye. They forgot what they were running toward.
Hebrews 12 reminds us that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. He is its beginning and the end. Our end goal is him. The great cloud of witnesses is in our ear, cheering and screaming, exhorting and encouraging. We have their testimonies to follow, to emulate—or in some cases, to avoid. But our eyes are on him. He is the prize. And when we reach him, our prize is not a laurel wreath that withers and dies but an everlasting home with him.
The Ultimate Example
The author concludes this section by giving us Jesus as the ultimate example:
For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:2b
There may be persecutions and hardships in this race. Endure it as discipline. God is refining you into who he wants you to be. One of my favorite poems, by an unknown author:
When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!
How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And which every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out-
God knows what He’s about.
God knows what he’s about in your life and mine. Let us run our race with endurance and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the beginning and end of our faith.
Father, give us the strength to carry on even with the race gets rough. Even when we are exhausted. When we are hurting. Even when it seems hopeless. This is not a race we run on our own, but through you. Bring us safely to our finish line. Keep us as a part of this unshakable kingdom.
What about the theme of running seems so appropriate for the Christian life? What can that teach us about our approach to life and ministry?
The last part of Hebrews 12 focuses on the seriousness of refusing to run. He speaks of God who is a consuming fire and one who judges. Why does this follow the exhortations of the first half of Hebrews 12?