In my next several posts, I’d like to share parts of a chapel message that I delivered recently at a college in the US. The message was entitled ‘Run with Endurance, Looking to Jesus’, and was based on Hebrews 12.1-2:
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’
I would like to focus on four key phrases which appear in the passage:
(1) ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’
(2) ‘lay aside every weight’
(3) ‘sin which clings so closely’ & ‘run with endurance’
(4) ‘looking to Jesus’
Today, I look at the phrase: ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’.
v. 1a: ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us’
Some of us know this from personal experience, but we all know in some way that there is a vast difference between fans and athletes. While fans may become quite invested in, passionate about, and even obsessed with, say, a team winning the super bowl or the Olympic gold medal, only the athlete who participates in these events know the real value and victory of actually winning. And even though these days, it’s sometimes very hard to tell a fan from an athlete – fans dressing, acting, yelling like athletes – these two creatures are very different: only the athlete knows the deep struggles and sacrifice it takes to produce a hard fought victory.
So in our ‘running with endurance’, when the biblical writer gives us motivation on the basis of this ‘cloud of witnesses’, what’s the connection? Sure, it might seem motivating to have fans in the stands; but just as easily we could imagine an athlete saying: ‘What do they know about working for a victory? What do they know about fighting a good fight? They’re only fans, mere bystanders.’
The point can easily be missed unless we realize what the term ‘witnesses’ actually means. In everyday English, we use the term in at least two very different ways: (1) witnesses of, e.g., a car accident; or (2) witnesses to, e.g., others about the grace of God in our own lives. Witnesses as fans or spectators vs. witnesses as athletes. We could see, then, why the writer says ‘let us also lay aside every weight’ – why ‘also’? Because others who have gone before us have done so. I think of the relay swimmers in a medley. While the anchor leg swimmer undoubtedly is encouraged by the screaming fans in the stands, she is motivated and strengthened by the encouragement and example of the previous three teammates who have gone before her. (And every once in a while, we catch a glimpse of this inspiration, as the TV camera pans over to the team – we too have a team of saints witnessing to us!)
Now at this point I would like to discuss briefly the importance of community. In Christianity today, I think many of us have lost a sense of belonging to the community of believers – the body of Christ. In our rather individualized Christianity, community is has become merely another word for people we like to hang around with. But community is much greater and grander. Community is the body of Christ present in this world, yes; but it is also saints who have gone before us. So when the writer of Hebrews seeks to motivate us by the great cloud of witnesses, he has in mind the idea that Christian community entails a kind of historic continuity – there is a sense in which the baton is being passed on. We are part of a larger story that God is writing through his people, the Church, and therefore we are accountable to carry on the baton of faith with honour and endurance.
Now horizontal community is important: my good friend Shaun who encouraged me during a run with the simple words ‘C’mon, Rich’. But we must also consider the vertical community of athlete-witnesses who have passed on the baton.
This is why, by the way, as I’m sure you’ve been taught: whenever you see the word ‘therefore’ in scripture, we always ask what the ‘therefore’ is there for. And in this case, the ‘therefore’ is there for us to consider the hall of faith in chapter 11: There are others have gone before us, who have endured ‘mocking and flogging, . . . chains and imprisonment’ (11.36), being stoned, being sawn in two (11.37) – whom the Scriptures describe as those ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (11.38) – therefore, we too who are contributing to the grand narrative of God, can have faith in a faithful God, and can run with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin. Heb. 11.39-40: ‘And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.’ So they look forward to having what was promised them, as you and I contribute to and complete the task they have handed on: therefore, we are told to lay aside weight and sin.
In my next post, I consider what the ‘weight’ is that we are to lay aside.