Run! The Christian Life Is a Race (Hebrews 12:1-3)


Run! The Christian Life is a Race

Hebrews 12:1-3

Good morning, my name is Shawn Farrell and I am the college pastor at FBC. Our teaching pastor Chris is still out sick. He has been giving us daily updates and is continuing to improve and Lord willing will be with us next Sunday. We miss you Chris and Jean. And congrats to Jesse and Brooke and Nick and Nicole–gentlemen, you both married up. Nice job.

Who is the fastest man in the world? This hotly contested topic is resolved every four years as the world turns to the Olympic games to watch the 100m finals, but this year the Olympics were cancelled. So who is the fastest man? Many would claim the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He has become a household name, as he has eight gold medals, and is the only sprinter to win the 100 and 200m titles at three consecutive Olympics.

He has also won two 4×100 gold medals. He currently holds the world record for all three events. How is he so fast? It is a combination of training, technique, and genetics. But in simple terms, his stride is at the same speed as the other runners, meaning his legs move at the same speed as theirs–but since he is 6’5”, he gains ground with each stride.

But I submit to you that Usain Bolt is not the world’s fastest man–rather, Chris Anderson is. His race is at the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Classic in Gloucester, England. Each year, contestants line up at the top of Cooper’s hill, and race down the 45-degree pitch chasing a wheel of cheese. They stumble, they fall, they do cartwheels over and over on their way down this treacherous hill.

The race has been summarized as twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to the hospital. Marked by scrapes, bruises, sprained ankles, and the occasional concussion, the winner is the first to the bottom, and receives as their prize the same 7lb wheel of cheese they were chasing.

Chris Anderson has finished the race in less than 9 seconds, making him the fastest man in the world. Of course he did it on a 45-degree pitch and was out of control most the time. For those looking for more information on this race, you can check out the Netflix show, “We are the Champions” for more.

We all know what it’s like to run in a race, and we all understand–there is a starting line, there is a finish line, and there is a prize. There is discipline, sacrifice, and focus needed to accomplish the goal. And all along the way, there are obstacles that get in our way and try to slow us down. None as crazy as the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Classic, but certainly we all remember standing on the line in elementary school with the rest of our class waiting for the teacher to say go.

The concept of racing is one of many metaphors used by the authors of the New Testament to describe the Christian life. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24 that in an effort to win the imperishable crown, he “runs in such a way that he may win.” He says in Philippians 2:16 that he did not want “to run in vain.” In 2 Timothy 4:7 at the end of his life he said, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

But there is no clearer picture of our race as Christians than that found in Hebrews 12:1-3. Please open your Bibles there and let’s read it together. “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, 2fixing 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. 3For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

If you are a Christian, then you are right now running a race. Today, this morning, you are in the middle of your race. There is a starting line, there is a finish line, and there is a prize. There is discipline, sacrifice, and focus needed to accomplish the goal. And all along the way, there are obstacles that get in our way and try to slow us down.

How is your race going? Are you running hard? Are you expending maximum effort? Are you even aware that you are in the race? For some, the pace is fast and you are running hard. The wind is rushing through your hair and Christ has your heart. For others, the pace is slow, weighed down by the distractions of this world or held back by sin in your life. For others, you have forgotten that you are in a race and aren’t running right now.

When was the last time you thought about your life as a race? I picked this text mostly for my own heart. I need to be reminded that I am in a race. Maybe like me, complacency and sin have crept into your heart. Forgetful and distracted, preoccupied by the busyness of life, your efforts have decreased and the goal is not firmly fixed in your mind.

The writer of Hebrews, knowing our tendency to drift, gives us these three verses to put us back into the race. He helps us with the reasons why running is difficult and gives us the ultimate motivation to keep running. And here it is in a nutshell. When your eyes are taken off of Christ, you will struggle to run. When you forget or get preoccupied and concerned with other things, you will find it is difficult to run.

And so in a divinely inspired motivation, we are given that great key to running our race. May the Lord use this text to bring us closer to Him and to drive us onward in our race. Our outline has three very simple points in the race motif—1) on your mark, 2) get set, 3) go.

1.  On Your Mark  Verse 1

We will spend the majority of our time in this first point, so buckle up. Look at the first phrase in verse 1. “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” This “therefore” pushes us back to chapter 11, the famous chapter of faith, as the author recounts the lives of faith lived by the Old Testament saints.

As we enter into the stadium, we see very quickly that our race is not the first race of the day. Others have run before us, living lives of faith and dependence on God–they have already crossed the finish line. Men like Moses, Joseph, and David, women like Sarah and Rahab who triumphed through their faith. And here we sit thinking, “Well of course. We are talking about Moses and David. They are a different caliber of individual. Old Testament heroes as compared to me. It’s not even close, not a fair comparison.”

But the point the author is making is that these men and women did not accomplish great things because they were amazing people. God took normal people and did much through them because of their faith. Moses was a stuttering murderer, Abraham a liar, Rahab a prostitute, David an adulterer, Sarah a doubter. This is not a list of perfect people. It is not a list of heroes. It is a list of fallen sinners who put their trust in God and watched Him do amazing things.

And as we enter the stadium, the idea is not that this great cloud of witnesses is in the stands cheering us on, but rather that their lives testify to us. We walk down the same path, we live in the same fallen world, we share the same sinful tendencies, and we run the same race that they ran. The reality is that men and women have been running this same race for thousands of years. We can look all the way back to the Old Testament or we can look back four weeks to Shannon and Danielle Hurley to see that the race is still being run today.

There is no promise that this will be easy, that the race is downhill with the wind at your back. On the contrary, we are confronted with trials and difficulties on a daily basis—health concerns, conflict at work, family issues, the losing of a loved one, the list goes on. The encouragement in this great cloud of witnesses is that you are not the only one running. Others have run and finished well and so can you as you seek to give yourself to the Lord and trust His plan for your life.

This brings us to the second half of verse 1, as the writer turns his attention to those who are now running. Instruction is given to us. Look at the second half of verse 1, “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.”

In any race, the announcer calls out, “On your mark”–this is the indication that the race is about to start. Athletes are called to the line and we are given specific instruction. We are told to lay aside the things that we don’t need to run–the things that prevent us from running well.

The Greek here is to put them off or to cease doing them–even to undress. There are two different categories mentioned here. Let’s look at them in turn. The first are . . .

Things that distract

Lay aside every encumbrance.” The word for encumbrance is a hinderance or an impediment–literally something bulky. These are things that would slow a runner down. A sweatshirt, a pair of baggy pants, boots, a backpack–items no athlete would ever wear in a race.

In the Christian life, this is anything that distracts. While not sinful in themselves, these are things that can slow us down if not kept in their proper place. It can include family, hobbies, social media, sports, and even ministry. What are those things that weigh you down, things that distract you, things that are not wrong in themselves, but can tend to pull you away and weigh you down.

Working overtime? Certain friends? Staying up late on Saturday night? Talk radio? Netflix? We could take our phones as an example–not sinful by themselves. It is such a helpful device. Weather, news, directions, stock market, games, camera, social media, music, calendar, email, to do list, banking, texting, and even the ability to make phone calls, and the list goes on. Full of helpful things. But it can easily distract and spend too much time looking down.

We can easily get absorbed in it and sometimes you look around a room and everyone is on their device. You wake up in the morning and instead of going to Scripture or prayer, you do your morning routine of news, emails, social media to see what you missed during the night. Or for me, it is dinnertime and we are sitting at the table, and I am still answering work texts instead of giving priority to my family. Encumbrances are not sinful in themselves, but they slow you down and keep you from running all out for Christ.

Just outside of Waikiki there is a crater called Koko Head. During World War II, the US military installed bunkers on top of the crater. They built a short railroad which transported cargo up the steep slope to the summit. The railroad tracks are supported by railroad ties from bottom to top. The railroad hasn’t been used in over 50 years. Instead the 1048 railroad ties are now used as stairs. It is a brutal workout and is not for the fainthearted.

Having travelled to Hawaii multiple times on business, I have done Koko Head on a number of occasions. It is everything within me just to get to the top, which by the way has phenomenal 360 degree views of the island (see, I have a picture right here on my iPhone). But what is amazing is that while climbing, I have seen people wearing weight vests, oxygen restricting masks, and even one guy who had a 5-gallon Sparklets water bottle filled with water strapped to his back.

So it is with the Christian life. It’s hard enough on its own, so why would you carry all this additional weight? How can you run? How can you give everything to Christ when you are bogged down with unnecessary distractions? My challenge to you is to consider what these things are in your life. Identify them and then seek to lay them aside. Set limits on TV watching, delete certain apps from your phone. Take real steps so that you are not slowed down in your race. And there is another category here–not only things that distract, but also . . .

Things that destroy

Too often the things that distract us are the gateway to things that will destroy us. The author not only warns us about encumbrances, but also verse 1 says, “Lay aside the sin which so easily entangles us.”

Sin is anything contrary to the will and law of God. And according to this text sin entangles us–that is to say, it exerts tight control or easily trips us up. Sin encircles us. It baits us, traps us, and causes us to forget that we are even in a race.

A few years back, my brother-in-law was helping me put up Christmas lights. When he opened a bin filled with lights, something scurried up his arm, he shrieked like a girl, and it quickly disappeared back into the dark recesses of my garage. I was on the side of the garage and he came over to tell me the story of a huge rat with beady eyes and a long tail that had attacked him. It turned out to be a small field mouse, that along with its family, had taken up residence in my garage.

Having two daughters, I didn’t feel right putting traditional mouse traps out and instead purchased a handful of the little teeter totter traps that capture the mouse alive. Within one hour, I caught twelve mice. Instituting Daddy’s catch and release program, which incidentally has saved the lives of birds, frogs, snakes, and other wildlife, we took these twelve mice out to a nearby field and released them. Feeling good about my humanitarian efforts, we returned home–mission accomplished, until I heard scurrying that evening.

There was one more mouse–it was bigger than the rest and didn’t fit into the little humane traps. Frustrated, I went out and bought a glue trap. This thing is brutal. You set it on the ground where the mouse will most likely run and if it steps any part of its body on it, it is captured. I came back a few hours later, and sure enough, there was a mouse on the trap. It had all four feet stuck on the glue pad, and was making every effort to free itself.

Too scared to approach, I went back in the house. When I returned, this poor mouse was completely stuck on this trap. All four limbs, his tail, his entire body–so much so that he could not even lift his head. That mouse was entangled. It was completely encircled and the prognosis was not good. We are not much different.

According to this verse, this is the sin that so easily entangles us. Notice that the word sin is singular. Notice the definite article. This is THE sin–the one that trips you up. The sin that holds you back. The sin that you confessed when you first gave your life to Christ and the same sin that you still confess today. Verse 1 tells us that this is the sin that so easily entangles us.

The Puritans called it a bosom sin or a darling sin–we call it a besetting sin. It is that sin which like Goliath, towers in front of you blocking the light of the sun, holds you back, and even threatens to destroy you. You know it well. It is in your mind right now. Like an Achilles heel, it has held you back from pursuing Christ. It brings shame, guilt, and regret as we are so prone to give into it.

But this is not a pity party. It is not an excuse. We are no victims. Instead, we are to lay it aside, to throw it down, to be done with it, to not entertain it or play with it or allow it any foothold in our hearts. We are to be aware of it, to know it and to treat it as a trap that once it has a hold will continue to tighten its grip until we are completely ensnared.

Romans 13:13 and 14 give good instruction. “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”

Sin mastered Cain. It cost Esau his inheritance, Samson his eyes, Achan his life. It turned Solomon’s heart from God, turned David into an adulterer, and caused Demas to love this present world more than Christ. It cannot be trifled with. It must not be entertained. It seeks to destroy you. John Owen said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” If you are to run the race of faith, you must lay aside those things that distract and those things that destroy you. Secondly, the announcer calls out, #2 in our outline . . .

2.  Get Set  Verse 2

This is the part in the race where your feet are in the blocks, your fingers are on the line, you come up off your knees and you prepare to run. You set your mind on that one singular goal. Before the gun goes off, you take one final look at the finish line. Verse 2 says, “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.”

If we are to run our race effectively, we must according to this verse fix our eyes on Jesus. The Greek has the idea of looking away from all else. Jesus is our only prize, our goal, our ambition. Colossians 1:18 says that He is to have first place in everything. We are, as it were, to put blinders on, and actively set our eyes on Christ. In this moment . . . and the next . . . and in every moment. He is to fill our hearts and our minds. He is to be all to us. And when we find that He is not all, when some sin is holding sway in our heart, then we say along with the songwriter, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”

Notice in verse 2 it says He is both “author and perfector of faith.” He was there at the beginning when we were saved, bringing us into the family of God, and He will be there at the end, taking us across the cold river of death and into His eternal home. This text tells us that Jesus ran His own race. He kept the course. Verse 2 says, “He endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Even in the worst kind of humiliating death, He did not get distracted or turn aside. One commentator said that, “on the cross Jesus plumbed the furthest depths of human shame.” That is to say that on the cross, Jesus endured the worst form of humiliation. He did not let the suffering of the cross deter Him from His goal.

Why did He do it? “For the joy set before Him.” He saw the prize. He saw the reward and therefore endured. His prize–the completing of His mission to save sinners and accomplish the will of His Father, and to be seated, verse 2 tells us, at the right hand of the throne of God. There He rules and reigns as the conquering hero.

But that is not it. He is there awaiting the cries for help that come from His people. Hebrews 4 calls it the throne of grace, for it is there that our great High Priest intercedes for us. It is there that He offers mercy and help in time of need. When we falter and trip and even fall, He waits for us to encourage us–to give aid and to remind us that no matter how shameful our sin, no matter how much guilt we feel, His grace goes deeper than your deepest sin.

Jesus is our ultimate model. He finished the race, and now we are called to fix our eyes on Him. Not on our sin, not on our failings, but on Him. Extinguish the passion of sin by fixing your eyes on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

3.  Go  Verse 1

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The gun goes off, and we got to run. Coming up out of the blocks with maximum effort, straining with every fiber–this is a race. You don’t win by taking it easy, you don’t win when you are distracted.

As the semester winds down and the holidays are upon us and you are looking for some time to relax, have you forgotten that this is a race that requires maximum effort? We are called to run, verse 1 says “with endurance”. The Greek is to remain under some burden.

It is not easy–we all have headwinds and things that desire to hold us back. But we are called to run with endurance. Notice it says the race that is set before us. The race is different for each one of us. Physical ailment, financial situation, family relationships, season of life–the course that is set for you is different from the course that is set for any other person. And yet you are called to run.

You have unique challenges, things only you face–but God has called you to run. And He has promised that, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

That is the name of the game–endurance. The Christian life isn’t a sprint, and it isn’t a marathon–it is a sprinting marathon. Crazy. Run hard for 80 years. Or for 40 years. Or for 20 years. However long God gives you. Jesus said, “Work while it is still day, because night is coming when no one can work.” This is the only life you have and you can use it to glorify God and store up treasure in Heaven or you can invest in the passing pleasures of this world.

My dad was a world class athlete. He used to talk a lot about his experiences, like getting spiked in the leg when boxed in. When he played basketball he should not have been playing, and rolled his ankle—so he didn’t tell his coach but just taped it and ran. For a year the swelling didn’t go down, and he ran through pain.

We all run our race through difficulty with challenges that no one else has—but there is one aim. There is one goal. And a runner has visualized every part of the race, knows every turn, and has the goal firmly in mind and does not deviate but gives it their all. But it’s hard and we stumble and maybe fall. We get distracted and sometimes find ourselves wandering off the track, sometimes rebelliously we go the wrong direction in disobedience. How do we get back on track if we are living apathetically or are off course?

Verse 3, “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” This is the first command in these verses. “Consider Him”–think on Him, meditate on Him, fix Him firmly in mind. And the reason the author tells us to consider Him is so that, verse 3, “you will not grow weary and lose heart.” This is the answer to burnout, to apathy, to lack of desire. A little dry this morning? Tank on empty? Think on Christ. Turn from your sin and turn toward Christ. Come back to Him.

I’d like to leave you with some specific application. On your sheets, write out two things—1) an encumbrance that holds you back, and 2) THE sin. Do it in code so the people around you don’t know what it is. Then write what steps you will take to set those things aside. But identifying sin is only the first step. You must also seek to set your affections on Christ. Would you take a minute to write out what steps you will take this week to set your mind on Him? Let’s pray.

About Shawn Farrell

Shawn leads the college ministry and serves as an elder at Faith Bible Church

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