The Believer's Marathon
By Brian Anderson

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

An interesting phenomena takes place in Hopkinton, Massachusetts each Patriot's Day (a Monday in mid-April). Several thousand slender men and women in running shoes gather to run a course exactly 26.21875 tortuous miles long. The race will conclude at the Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Before approaching the starting line, the contestants will take their last drink of water, smear a final glob of vaseline where their clothes might rub against their flesh, tie their shoelaces into double knots and relieve themselves of bodily fluids for the last time. In the skies above helicopters from the Boston press buzz around, while below 500,000 avid spectators line the sides of the course. Just prior to assembling at the starting position, family and friends say good-bye to these gluttons of punishment as if they are heading into the Bermuda Triangle never to return. At precisely 12:00 noon an official points a pistol directly overhead and fires a shot. At this signal, a bobbing mass of humanity lumbers down the road in the general direction of the city of Boston. In just over 2 hours the winner will cross the finish line. This individual will have run over 26 miles, averaging 5 minutes per mile! (I don't know about you, but I could never even run a single mile in under 6 minutes, let alone 26 5-minute miles!) In the process of the race, these runners will have suffered untold agonies. The final contestants to cross the finish line run haltingly, wearing gaunt and haggard expressions. Some are limping; others are bleeding where their skin has worn raw. Some, past caring what anyone thinks are clutching each other like soldiers after a dreadful defeat! Later on, though, after the tortures of the race subside, a kind of miracle takes place. There is a certainty that whatever tortures were endured out there on that lonely course were worth it all. The joy of crossing the finish line makes up for every ache, cramp and anguished moan experienced along the way.

I'm referring of course to the annual Boston Marathon. As difficult and grueling as the Boston Marathon might be, the Bible records another marathon that every Christian must run which is just as challenging. It's the Christian Life, and it will take just as much discipline, fortitude and determination to snap the winner's tape in heaven as it takes someone to finish the Boston Marathon down here!

In Hebrews 12:1-2, the main thought is found in the words "let us run." All the other verbs in this text are secondary. They all spin off of this phrase "let us run." God is calling us to run the Race of Life! He's calling us to give the Christian life everything we've got, so that one day we will cross the finish line in heaven with joy!

How are we to run this race? Well our text tells us to run the race with endurance. We are also told that we must run it as we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. The twin ideas of endurance and faith are presented as the way this race must be run. That's very interesting, considering the context of Hebrews 12. Way back in Hebrews 10:36 the author had said, "For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised." He goes on to say, "For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in Him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul." The author's point here is that saving faith is enduring faith, and the Hebrew Christians he is writing to needed to endure in faith. Then follows that great chapter which has been called the Hall of Faith -- Hebrews chapter 11. Old Testament saint after Old Testament saint is brought forth as a witness of the victory which enduring faith will produce. The word faith is found 25 times in that single chapter! As we start off Hebrews 12, the author has this very same theme in mind. In verse 1 he says, "let us run with endurance." In verse 2 he tells us that Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross." Then in verse 3 he exhorts us to "consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart." The ideas of endurance and faith are woven throughout this entire section. This race that we are told we must run is a race of faith. However, the faith by which we run is not a short-lived experience. Rather, it is an enduring faith, which brings a man through all its obstacles until he arrives safely home in glory!

Why was it necessary for the Hebrews to be exhorted to run the race of the Christian life with enduring faith? The answer lies in the historical context in which these believers were living. The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were suffering persecution because they had forsaken Judaism for Jesus Christ. It was possible that they might look upon their suffering as a sign of God's displeasure with them and give up. Or, they might be tempted to return to the temple and its ceremonies. Consequently, they had need to be urged on to finish the race that they had started.

The word race in Greek is "agona." We get our English word "agony" from it. This race is not going to be easy to finish. We will meet with many hardships, trials, and heartaches along the way. The Greek verb which is translated "let us run" speaks of ongoing action. It could be translated "let us go on running." This race will never be completed without concentration of purpose and will. It will take strenuous effort. If we want to be successful, we must give ourselves wholly to this one thing -- running with all our might! We must be willing to forget about everything except this all-absorbing desire to gain the prize. I'm speaking, of course, about the Christian life. God has never told us that turning from sin and living for His glory would be a piece of cake! In fact, because it is not easy most people refuse to live for God. Jesus told us that the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction and many are those who enter by it. However, the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

In any race you will find certain elements. You will have the spectators of the race, the preparation before the race, the course of the race, the trainer of the race, and the prize at the end of the race. Our text in Hebrews 12:1-2 speaks of all of these elements. Let's look at them one by one.

1. The Spectators Of The Race:

The ancient Greek athletic contests were held in an amphitheater. The contests were very popular among the people, and thus, tier after tier of seats would be occupied by the avid fans until the stadium was filled to capacity. There is an allusion to these spectators in our text. We are reminded that there is a "great cloud of witnesses surrounding us." Who makes up this "great cloud of witnesses?" Well, if we remind ourselves that Hebrews 12 follows on the heels of chapter 11 in which great men of faith were held up for our emulation, we will begin to understand who they are. In chapter 11 we read of the great faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel. These Old Testament saints who lived by enduring faith are the great cloud of witnesses that surround us.

But how are they witnesses? Does this passage teach that these men who have died and gone on to heaven, are peering down from silver-lined clouds watching our lives and cheering us on? I don't think so. Remember that they are called witnesses. A witness is someone who has obtained testimony about something by first-hand experience, and then testifies about it to others. A literal translation of Hebrews 11:2 reads "For by faith the men of old obtained a testimony." And then, after showing how these men of faith obtained a testimony, in verse 39 we read, "and all these, having obtained a testimony through their faith, did not receive what was promised."

What was the testimony that all these heroes of faith obtained? I submit to you, that it was the testimony of the victorious nature of enduring faith! Every one of them was a victor, even though they endured great hardships along the way. How were they victors? Well, Hebrews 11:33 tells us they "conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection." What kind of hardships did they endure? Verse 35 tells us "others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill- treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground." They endured in faith, but at the finish line they were victors of the first rate!

Usually spectators look at the runners in the race. In this race, we, the runners look at them. Their lives in the pages of Scripture testify to us of the victorious nature of enduring faith. They had less gospel light than we have this side of the cross, but every one of them triumphed! God had the lives of the Old Testament heroes of faith recorded in Scripture in order to give us encouragement, when we feel like giving up. Next time you feel like throwing in the towel, remind yourself that the God of Abraham, Moses, and David is your God. If they can do it, so can you! Be encouraged!

2. The Preparation For The Race:

Not only are there spectators in any race, but there are also certain preparations which must be made if any runner is to be successful. Common sense informs us that in order for a runner to be fast, he must be slim. When is the last time you saw a 300 pound winner of the Boston marathon?! In fact, a runner in good condition does not weigh more than two pounds per inch of body height! That would mean a man of my size (5 feet, 10 inches) would weigh in at about 140 pounds. Ted Corbitt, a former Olympic marathoner once said, "when people tell you, as a runner, how good you look, you can be sure you're not fit. If you don't look gaunt, you're out of shape." Frank Shorter, winner of the Olympic gold marathon in 1972 was 5 feet, 10.5 inches and weighed 134 pounds. Bill Rodgers, winner of several world-class marathons was 5 feet, 8.5 inches and weighed 125 pounds. We are told in our text that we must lay aside every encumbrance in order to run the race. The word encumbrance in Greek means "a weight, bulk, or mass." Probably the idea of excess physical weight was in the mind of the author.

What are these weights or encumbrances? They are anything which slows us down in our Christian lives! These things might not be bad necessarily in themselves. But they sap our energy. They are dead weight upon our souls. They hinder us in our service to Christ. They are like a pair of army boots. Now, there's nothing wrong with army boots, in and of themselves. But when they are worn in a marathon, there is something VERY wrong with them! These encumbrances might be money, pleasure, job, family, power, pride, or any of a number of other things. They can be anything which hinders you from living a life in which God is the supreme goal of your life. Sometimes we wonder if a particular activity is sin. I think that's the wrong question. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is "will this thing slow me down in my pursuit of God?" My friend, what is slowing you down as you pursue your heavenly crown? What has been wrapping its octopus-like tendrils around your heart? What is more important to you than your relationship to Jesus Christ? That thing must be laid aside! Determine today that you will cast it aside!

These encumbrances, however, are not the only things we are told we must lay aside. We are also told we must lay aside the "sin which so easily entangles us." The Greek word here is very obscure. This is the only place it is found in the entire New Testament. Thus, it is not easy to determine its precise meaning. Probably Kenneth Wuest has come as close as any in his Expanded Translation of the New Testament where he gives the sense, "that sin which so deftly and cleverly places itself in an entangling way around us." The author probably had in mind the idea of laying aside any clothing which might trip us up in the race. Can you imagine the Boston Marathon champion running those 26 miles in his bathrobe?! Any runner knows that the right sportswear is imperative in running his fastest in the race. A runner skimps down to the least amount of clothing decency will allow in a race. In fact, his shirt, shorts, and shoes weigh less than a pound. Likewise, all of us have those sins that so easily entangle us which must be cast aside if we want to be winners. Your easily entangling sin is probably not my easily entangling sin. For some people alcohol and drugs are their besetting sins. For others it is money, power, or position. For others it is gluttony, while for others it is pornography, lying, or stealing. Still others must deal with their besetting sin of pride, jealousy, or temper. My friend, whatever your easily entangling sin is, determine today that you will lay it aside! You will never reach the goal if you refuse to deal with your sin (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This isn't optional. It must be put to death! May God, by His grace, enable you to kill those sins in your life!

3. The Course Of The Race:

In addition to the spectators, and the preparation necessary for the race, our text speaks of the course of the race. It says, "let us run with endurance THE race that is set before us." It is not any old race that we are to run. We are to run THE race. God has placed before you a specific race that He intends you to complete.

Notice that this race is set before us. Who set it before us? Obviously we didn't do so. God is the One who has prepared our good works beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). He has carefully marked out the course you must run. It has its share of grueling hills and blistering highway stretches, but it also has its pleasant downhill trots and beautiful scenery. Every stretch of ground, valley, meadow and pavement has been pre-planned by your loving Heavenly Father. Nothing in your future has been left to chance, accident or coincidence. He knows and has ordained every inch of the course. And what's best -- the entire course was planned with your good in mind (Rom. 8:28)!

As we have remarked earlier, this race is not a quick and easy sprint. It's a long, difficult course. We will be tempted to give up. We need endurance! One sports writer has expressed himself about running a marathon like this: "the difference between the mile and the marathon is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals." When everything in you wants to slow down or collapse on the sidelines while you catch your breath, remember His words -- "run the race with endurance!" The Church has always had many short-spurt Christians, but we must be those who go the distance. God is not as interested in how fast you can leave the blocks, as how faithfully and perseveringly you will continue to live for Him day in and day out! This race will require everything you have, but be of good cheer! His grace is sufficient to enable you to finish as a winner!

4. The Trainer Of The Race:

Our text speaks to us not only of the spectators, the preparation, and the course, but also the trainer. This trainer is very special. In fact, he's a world champion. He won several Olympic gold ribbons a generation ago. Since then he has become a world-famous coach. And the most glorious thing of all is that he has hand-picked you. That's right. One day he was walking by your high school campus and saw you. At that time you were anything but a champion runner. Your friends called you The Blimp. The reason was not hard to find -- your waistline measurement was almost as large as your height! He came over and began to talk to you, and it wasn't long until he had convinced you that he could turn you into a successful racer. At the beginning you often tripped over your feet, and could barely finish the mile in 10 minutes. However, slowly but surely, with his patient coaching you have improved until today you are running a 26 mile marathon. You might say he made you what you are today! He found you, trained you, put you into the race, and helps you to finish the race you started. He always runs a few steps ahead of you, looking back and encouraging you all the way. He never leaves your side during the entire marathon. His presence and encouraging example have never let you down. Every time you are tempted to give up you see him running on ahead and his example and kind eyes convince you to keep on going.

You've got a lot of things going for you as a contestant in this race. Not only do you have a stadium full of spectators whose lives continually witness to you the truth that enduring faith prevails; not only do you have a course that has been planned in every detail by your loving Heavenly Father, but you have the best Trainer in the Universe. I'm speaking of course of Jesus Christ Himself! Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Christ is the "author and perfecter of faith." The word author means "originator." Martin Luther translated this text as "the beginner and completer of faith." The word "perfecter" means finisher. Jesus Christ is the one who gives us the faith to believe in the first place, and then sustains that faith every moment of our lives until we arrive in heavenly glory. If you believe in Christ, chalk it up to His amazing grace! It was not of you, but of Him; therefore, to His name we give glory (Psalm 115:1)! This is the truth that the Apostle Paul expresses in Philippians 1:6 when he declares, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." He put us into this race, and He will see us through to the end!

Notice what our responsibility is to this Trainer. Hebrews 12:2 declares, "fixing our eyes on Jesus." The Greek verb is interesting. It means "looking away from all else to Jesus." Now, this is good, sound advice. What happens if a runner fixes his eyes on the other runners, his shoelaces, or the spectators? He'll slow down and lose the race. Likewise, we must take our focus off of other people, and our own sins and rivet our eyes on Jesus. If we look to other people we will find that they will let us down. If we focus primarily on our sins, we will become discouraged and feel like quitting. But as long as we are looking at Him we can't lose! Don't think of how far you have left to go. Only think of Him! As He fills your vision, the difficulties of the race will fade into the background, and the joy of fellowship with Him will be your portion. As you keep your eyes fixed on Him, all the grace you need along the way will be supplied!

5. The Prize Of The Race:

We come at last to the finish line and the prize of this race. Every race has its prize. It might be only a laurel wreath, a medal, a trophy, a cash award, or the applause of the crowd, but every race has some prize to be obtained. It's no different in this one.

There was a prize awarded to Jesus Christ upon the successful completion of His marathon. His race took Him from the heavenly palaces to Bethlehem's manger. From there He traveled to Gethsemane, Golgotha, and back to heaven. Never once did He falter or turn back. He kept His eyes fixed on the joy set before Him. What was it?

I believe the joy set before Jesus Christ was seeing all of God's elect saved and brought safely to heaven upon His successful completion of the Father's will. This is what Christ's heart has been set upon for all eternity! That's why He came -- to do His Father's will. He said in John 6:38-39 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day." There is a group of people who were given to Jesus Christ by His Father from eternity past (Eph. 1:4; John 17:9). The Bible calls these people the elect, His sheep, the many, His people, His bride, and His church. They were appointed to eternal life by the sovereign will of God. Christ's mission was to come down from heaven, save them by His agonizing death upon the cross, and make sure that every one of them is brought safely across the finish line in heaven! By doing this, He will be exalted and God will be glorified! Consider His words just before going to the cross, "I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do." Because He was obedient unto death, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9). God has caused Him to sit down at His right hand in glory to be worshipped by the angels and saints! Jesus valued the glory of God and the salvation of His elect above all else including life, honor and reputation, and was willing to part with all to achieve it.

This joy was set before Christ. How so? In the eternal counsels of the Godhead, Jesus Christ was chosen to be the One who would come, live, die and rise again to save His people from their sins. This plan was conceived before the foundation of the world. Jesus knew every detail of this plan and came for the express purpose of accomplishing it.

Now the prize that Christ has won is our prize as well. Upon the successful completion of His race Christ has been glorified. He is exalted. When we have finished our race, we will be glorified together with Him (Rom. 8:17)! We will sit down with Him on His throne in glory! The crown of life awaits you! Why do you delay? There is an everlasting inheritance awaiting you! All the pain and trouble you will meet with are worth the prize! Run! Run! Run!

If you are a Christian, you have already begun the race. Keep on running! Remember to derive encouragement from the Old Testament saints who surround you as spectators in a stadium. Learn from their example. Remember them in your time of need. Moreover, lay aside those weights and besetting sins that are hindering you from the race! By God's grace, deal with them today. Additionally, be comforted by the fact that this a very specific course. God has planned the whole thing. Nothing will befall you on this race that He has not already foreseen, and will not give you sufficient grace to overcome. Above all, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the One who gave you faith in the first place and the One who sustains that faith until the end. If your eyes are fixed there you will never fail! Finally, remember that a glorious prize awaits you! Run as though your life depends on it, for assuredly it does! Run for your life!

If you are not yet a Christian, you have yet to begin the race. I urge you with everything within me to lay aside everything that hinders you and begin to run. Why shouldn't you reach the glory of the heavenly finish line? You complain that you are out of shape and overweight. So were all the runners in this race when the Great Trainer first found them. That doesn't disqualify you. You tell me that you fear your encumbrances and entangling sins will never allow you to make the goal. Believe on Christ and all those sins are forgiven. What's more, He will give you the power to strip them away. Look to Him! You plead that you feel you will never be able to hold out to the end. The race is long, and you don't think you can make it. My friend, no one can make it in their own strength. That's why you must fix your eyes on Jesus. He will give you faith, and He will sustain your faith all the way! No, you don't have any good excuses. If you choose not to run this race, it is not because He will not let you. The judge of the race has a megaphone in his hand and He is shouting to all within earshot to enter the race. No, "the one who comes to Christ shall never be cast away" (John 6:37). If you refuse to run the race, it must only be because you despise the Judge and the Trainer and won't obey His voice. If that is the case, then I can only say that this message will bear swift witness against you on Judgment Day. You have heard the truth, but refuse to heed it. When all the throng have finished the race and are receiving their rewards, you must hear those terrifying words, "Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). I desire with all my heart that you will make the right choice and begin to live for Jesus Christ today! If you feel you have no power to begin, cry out to Him for He has said, "whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13). What will it be my friend? Come to Christ today and begin the race while there is still time! "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:6-7).

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