God Considers YOU An Endurance Athlete (Hebrews 12:1)
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. —Hebrews 12:1
These days our family has been enjoying watching the 2018 winter Olympics. I’m amazed that behind every waving muscle-toned athlete is a backstory of dedication and years of hard work. It inspires me and makes me feel guilty at the same time as I reflect on my mostly sedentary lifestyle and how long ago I was an athlete. Well, to all the couch potatoes reading this, you might be encouraged to know that God considers YOU an endurance athlete.
Believers Are Spiritual Endurance Athletes
If you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, you are a spiritual athlete on a long enduring journey. That is why Paul uses the language of sports in Hebrews 12:1, comparing our lives to running a “race set before us.” More precisely, we are endurance athletes and not sprinters: we must “run with endurance.” Both kinds of athletes need careful preparation, but in different ways. A sprinter trains for a short burst of peak performance to win a race with the finish line in site. That’s not the kind of race that believers run.
Endurance athletes, like believers, must prepare for the long, grueling race with a finish line that is known but not in sight. This kind of training requires “setting the pace,” faithful training, and discipline in order to go the distance: “It is for discipline that you have to endure” (Hebrews 12:7). Paul even motivates us by contrasting what believers endure to the hardship that Christ endured: “In your struggle … you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4).
Faith Is Our Spiritual Muscle
Athletes are motivated to go that "extra mile" when they know that another athlete has done the same. The fastest times in any sport keep getting faster each year as athletes strive to go beyond the mark set by others.
As spiritual athletes, believers exercise their muscle of faith and are motivated by others who do the same. That’s why Paul precedes his exhortation to “run the race with endurance” with Hebrews chapter 11, which is often called the “Hall of Faith.” Paul recounts the great and persevering faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and others who all endured with an “assurance of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
The full weight of these living examples falls on the word, “therefore” that begins chapter 12. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us … run with endurance the race…” (Hebrews 12:1). We can do it! Look at our brothers and sisters in the faith who have traveled this same course!
It’s also important to notice the obvious: that believers are not bystanders cheering on the sidelines. Rather, they are in the race, doing the will of God. “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (Hebrews 10:36)
The First Step to Training is Removing Hindrances
The first step to any good training program is to get rid of our couch-potato habits and take on the habits of an elite athlete. As believers, we need spiritual habits that draw us to God and that help us “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely.” Sin will slow us down in the race and could even steer us off the track. Every time we, by God’s grace, “put off” our old sinful habits and “put on” the spiritual character of our new life in Christ, we take advantage of God’s means of keeping us in the race (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Believers Need to Keep Their Eye on the Finish Line
But how can believers keep their “eye” on the finish line when it is not in sight? One way is to follow the example of our forbearers in the faith by setting our hearts and minds ahead to our homeland in heaven. Our focus is ahead, on the “race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). We don’t need to look back at the struggles and pitfalls that tripped us up earlier in the course of life.
I thought of this when I watched an Olympic cross-country ski event in which a top-ranked skier fell near the start of the race because of a broken pole. His tumble caused two other racers to fall on top of him. But from “dead last,” this Norwegian athlete got back in the race and battled over a grueling course to eventually win Olympic gold. He didn’t let the colossal fall at the beginning of the race deter him from striving ahead with all his might.
The people lauded as examples of faith in Hebrews 11 were “seeking a homeland” (v. 14), desiring a “better country, that is a heavenly one” (v. 16), and enduring hardship by “looking to the reward” (v. 26). Believers have something far better than an Olympic podium ahead of them: eternal life with God.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
Are you making difficult circumstances in your life harder by comparing yourself to the wrong people? If so, what person in the Bible can be a better example of faith to encourage you today?
When is the last time you thought about heaven and eternity with God? Take time to set your mind ahead today.
What “weight of sin” do you need to lay aside so that you can pursue God more fully?
Are you practicing habits like daily Bible reading, prayer, and Christian fellowship to help you “set the pace” to endure?