Surrounded by Lessons of Faith (Heb. 12.1-3)

04 Sep


Photo by kayrie on Morgue File.

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the exhortation to believers in Hebrews 12.1 to run the race. I now want to further that discussion by looking at the first three verses of Hebrews twelve a little more closely.

The exhortation, let us run, is the main verb of the short paragraph (vv.1-3). This main verb clause is then surrounded by three participial phrases. Depending on your translation, these participial phrases may be difficult to spot. 

Typically in English, to form an active participle, we simply take a verb, (e.g. fight) and we add an -ing suffix to it; so then, fight becomes fighting

When we look at verses one through three, we can do the same thing in our translation, to better highlight the participial forms. 

I will put the participles in bold font so they will be easier to see and I will underline the main verb:

Having a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight and the sin which easily ensnares us, with endurance let us run the race set before us, looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith . . .  

As David L. Allen noted in his commentary on Hebrews, “[h]owever one construes the participles, it is important to note their modification of the main verb “let us run,” since linguistically the finite verb carries more semantic weight than the subordinate participles.” (David L. Allen, NIV The New American Commentary on Hebrews, Kindle Edition, p. 571)

So then, as we run this race, as we live the Christian life, according to this pericope, there are three things we must do: first, we should learn from the men and women of faith who have gone before us (i.e. to use the sports metaphor the author uses, the ones who have passed the baton to us); second, we are to lay aside anything, whether sin or not, that hinders us in our race; and third, we are to keep our eyes, our focus squarely on Jesus, who is our foremost example.

We will focus on the first participial phrase in today’s post. 

Having a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us . . . . Much has been made of this little phrase. There are those who believe the writer of Hebrews is teaching his first readers, and us by extension, that those who have died can look down upon us and see what we are up to. 

This seems to be problematic to me. Do they only see the good things we do? Do they see our faults and sin too? Do they see us as individuals? Or, do they see the church as a whole? What practical warrant would there be for them to gaze upon the here and now?

It seems to me the better option is to view this, not as them looking on us; but rather, we looking on them. Again, if we continue our relay race analogy, they have passed the baton to us. It is now our time to run the race. It is now our time to be on the field of play. It is now our time to perform upon the stage. Their time has come and gone. We now hold the baton. We now run the race. And, one day, we will pass it on as well.

It is their lives, their examples (especially those covered in Hebrews 11) that serve as witnesses and examples to us. Their lives of faith are to be examples for us as we live by faith before God. We learn from their successes and their failures. We glean truths from their lives and notice potential problem areas and pitfalls.

We, then, are to learn from them. We are to study their lives and glean truths that will be beneficial for us.

As one has said, we stand on their shoulders. The race has progressed as it has because of their faithfulness and acts of service for Christ. It is now our time.

It was not for them to say they would have preferred a different time, or a different leg of the race to run . . . neither is it for us. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear, the race is set before us

Who does the setting? Certainly not us! God sets the race before each of us.

He has chosen us for this exact moment in time to run this race. How are we running it? Are we running with endurance? Are we running faithfully? Purposefully? Do we run with determination? Are we easily distracted? Do we hobble to the sidelines because of some passing pain? Do we choose to stand and watch and drink our water, while others continue the race? Are we learning the lessons from those who have preceded us?

Yes, we all need time of rest and Sabbath. We all need time of refreshment and re-energizing. But none of us, as Christ followers, are exempt from the race. If we are to follow Christ, then we must run!

And, one way we do this, one way we successfully run this race is by learning from those men and women of faith who have gone before us. Their lives of faith serve to teach us, to encourage us, warn us and inspire us.

If you read Hebrews 11 and come away thinking, I really don’t know much about a lot of the people mentioned there. Then, it may be a good idea to flip back a few pages to the Old Testament and read their life stories. Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate your understanding. Ask God to help you glean principles and truths that he can apply directly to you and to your running of the race.

So, my brother and sister in Christ, my fellow runner, learn from those men and women of faith. Let them be an encouragement to you. Study them. Drink from their cup. Run with endurance and hold the baton tightly . . . until it is your time to pass it on.

Three Lessons To Be Gleaned:

1.)     Grammar matters! Yes, I know, many would rather have a root canal then think about grammar! I personally love grammar and syntax. But, either way, it is important. The writer of Hebrews uses syntax to build his argument as he lays out his athletic metaphor in the first paragraph of chapter twelve. As they say, the devil is in the details! In this case, exegetical insight is in the syntactical details!

2.)     We are to learn from those who have gone on before us. As we read the accounts of the OT and NT saints, or even those from church history, we should do so with an eye toward learning something applicable for our own lives. In other words, we should not merely read the accounts, but read in order to gain insight and wisdom. Again, as examples they are teaching moments for us, as the Holy Spirit illuminates our understanding and makes appropriate applications.

3.)     The Christian Life is a life of actionThere is a reason the writer of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, chose to liken the Christian life to a race. The athletic metaphor teaches us that the life of the disciple is one of action and movement. Again, Christianity is not a spectator sport! We are called to run the race. As we look at our lives we should evaluate, not only whether we are actively pursuing this high calling; but also, how well we are doing it. That is, are we doing it for his glory or our own praise? Are we doing it faithfully with endurance or are we tagging in and out as we please? Are we learning from those who have gone before us or do we see ourselves as an island, in a vacuum with little to no concern for the work of God in others before us? 


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