Hebrews 12:1 begins a new section. The grammar of chapter 11 was almost entirely constructed in the indicative mood as the author told what happened. Chapter 12 shifts to the imperative mood and a tone of exhortation very similar to that found in Hebrews 10:19-39. Most of the verbs of chapter 11 were in the third person (he). Chapter 12 (like 10:19-39) uses mostly first (we) and second (you) person verbs. The exhortation is directed to the readers of the book of Hebrews urging them to turn their attention from the many models of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 to the best model, Jesus, in Hebrews 12.
Hebrews 12:1-3 appeals to the first readers to imitate Jesus' faithfulness. The language of pilgrimage also returns in chapter 12. Jesus is the pioneer who goes before his followers and enables them to walk in his footsteps. Verses 4-11 turn the focus to the subject of discipline and the call to endure pressure as part of the discipline used by God for spiritual growth. Verses 12-17 call for whole-hearted commitment to the journey of faith. Verses 18-24 return to the concept of pilgrimage and contrast Mt. Sinai and the old covenant with Mt. Zion and the new covenant as destinations in the journey of life. The implications of the superiority of Christ argued in Hebrews 1-10 are applied specifically to the question of faithful obedience under pressure.
Jesus as the Perfect Pattern - Hebrews 12:1-3
Hebrews 12:1-2 is a single sentence in the Greek text. The subject and verb of the main (independent) clause come near the end of verse 1, "Let us run." The rest of the clauses in the two verses describe how the Christian race is to be run. It is important to recognize that the phrase let us run is exhortation and encouragement. Instead of directly commanding the readers to run ("You run") the author includes himself in the exhortation. Thus the harsh edge is taken off and he shows his willingness to join them in living the life that he knows they must live. The Greek grammatical construction has a stronger sense of exhortation than the usual translation "let us." This exhorting construction is common in the book of Hebrews. Verse 3 then provides a transition to the following verses on discipline.
The opening clause in verse 1 states a motivation that we should faithfully run the Christian race. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses we must run the race. The author makes a very interesting shift in this clause. The cloud of witnesses clearly refers back to the great faith heroes described in chapter 11. There they were on display as models for us to emulate and they were attested (literally witnessed to) by God. The author turns the tables in Hebrews 12:1. Now it is the readers who are on display and the faith heroes will be doing the witnessing or attesting to the faith of the readers.
One might suppose that the switch was required by the figure of speech the author uses for Christian living, running a race. The runners in the race do not look at the spectators and evaluate them, but vice-versa. The faith heroes were models for us to follow in our training in chapter 11. In 12:1 they have become the spectators who will evaluate how well the lessons have been learned.
This very switch is also part of the author's effort to motivate his readers. Every athletic team with a winning tradition feels the pressure to live up to the standards of earlier, successful teams. That pressure is especially present when members of the former teams attend the games as spectators to evaluate the new kids. Part of the message of this verse is that every Christian lives within a historical tradition of faithfulness and every Christian is responsible to hand that tradition of faith and obedience on to another generation. We are who we are as Christians because of Paul and Martin Luther and John Wesley and a host of less known pastors, teachers, and Christian models. Part of the responsibility of faithfulness is not only faithfulness to God but to the long living stream of faithful people who delivered the faith to us and expect us to pass it on to others.
The second clause modifying the exhortation to run is laying aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets. If the race is to be run successfully the runner must lay aside every weight. This is a common feature of competitive running. Every ounce of excess weight is stripped off and the runner is streamlined to perform with maximum efficiency.
However, the word weight was also used by Greek moral authors to describe vices and bad habits. Thus in the spiritual context of Hebrews 12:1 the author was implying that successful perseverance under pressure would require that his readers put aside harmful habits and distracting activities and attitudes. The fact that he speaks of every weight suggests that he was thinking in general terms rather than of specific habits or practices. Bruce (pp. 335-336) notes, "There are many things which may be perfectly all right in their own way, but which hinder a competitor in the race of faith; they are 'weights' which must be laid aside. It may well be that what is a hindrance to one entrant in this spiritual contest is not a hindrance to another; each must learn for himself what in his case is a weight or impediment."
On the other hand there are things that are altogether wrong for the Christian runner. The easily besetting sin will always be wrong for every believer. The interpretation of this sin has been difficult. The use of the singular sin instead of plural suggests that the author was not thinking of specific sins. Rather anything by which the believer would violate the will of God must be left behind.
The singular has also led some scholars to think that the author had the sin of apostasy in mind. Others have noted that apostasy would put a Christian out of the race altogether. It is best to understand that the author was simply warning against sin in any form. Sin always entangles, impedes, distracts, and eventually disqualifies the Christian runner. Hebrews 3:13 had already warned against the deceitfulness of sin and 11:25 had mentioned the passing pleasures of sin. The focus of the Christian life will always be on faithful obedience to Christ. Anything that pulls us away from that will undermine the exhortation to run the race.
The Christian race is also to be run with endurance. The author is clear that Christianity is more than a momentary decision; it is a life-long commitment. The Greek construction of the verb let us run expresses continuous and on-going action. When combined with the words with endurance the sentence clearly communicates the day by day character of Christian life. For the original readers this was an exhortation to persistent in faithfulness even in the face of persecution. The author was telling them that they could not set time limits on God. We are often tempted to say, "I'll be faithful until ______ time. By then, things better have changed." The Christian life does not work that way. Regardless of the pressure, the race must be run patiently enduring until the end. The promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 is that God will enable us to bear whatever pressure there is.
The way we are equipped to endure appears in verse 2 in the phrase, looking to Jesus. The exact relationship of looking to Jesus and running the race is not defined. It may be that the author only wants to say that we run the race and at the same time we look to Jesus. The Greek construction could just as well mean that we run the race because we are intently watching Jesus. Most likely, the meaning is that we run the race by looking to Jesus. Intense, focused attention on Jesus enables the believer to stay in the race.
At this point it is important that the role of Jesus is different from that of the faith heroes mentioned in chapter 11. They were models of faith. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. There are a variety of translations for the Greek word I have translated "pioneer." Its Greek root can mean "beginning," which leads to translations like "author" and "pioneer." It can also mean "ruler," which leads to translations like "prince" and "champion." The word "perfecter" could also mean "finisher" or the "one who completes." In the larger context of Hebrews 12 portraying the Christian life as a pilgrimage pioneer and perfecter best expresses Jesus' role in the faith. He pioneers the journey and leads the way for us. In that sense he is the pioneer blazing a trail through suffering and the cross. The first readers (and we) can safely follow him through pressure and persecution since he is the trailblazer.
But Jesus not only gets us started on the faith journey and leads us through the difficult parts, he also brings the journey to its final completion. He perfects us in faith in the sense that he leads and equips us to reach the fullness of what God expects and desires from us. That Jesus has accomplished all that God willed for faith can be seen in the final phrase of verse 2, he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. The journey is complete for him and there is on-going rest at the right hand of God. But that final and permanent rest stands in sharp contrast to the endurance and shame he had to demonstrate as the pilgrimage passed by the way of the cross. Since Jesus had blazed that trail, the author of Hebrews wanted his readers to understand that whatever "cross" and "shame" might come their way it was possible to be victorious by staying in step with Christ.
Verse 3 continues to point to Christ. The author drops the softer exhortation of "let us" to directly command his readers to take Christ into account. Consider is a term from arithmetic and accounting meaning to "add up" or "calculate and compare." The author calls us to add up the hostility and opposition that Jesus faced and calculate the cost of our salvation. That cost should be compared with the price of our staying faithful to him. If we would make such a cost comparison, then we will not succumb to temptation to lose heart and give up.
Discipline as Proof of Authenticity - Hebrews 12:4-11
Cost comparison between the price we have paid to follow Christ and the price he paid to save us will usually be embarrassing. The author is almost tongue-in-check when he reminds his readers that they have not resisted to the point of shedding blood in their struggle against sin. The cost of salvation in terms of Christ's blood had been made clear in Hebrews 9:12 and 10:19. The price the first readers were paying at the time Hebrews was written did not even include torture or property loss (though that had happened in earlier years according to Hebrews 10:32-34). The evidence of chapter 11 rather implied that things would become more difficult not easier in the future.
As a result the author turns to Scripture in verses 5-6 to quote Proverbs 3:11-12. The key concept that these verses produce is that of discipline. Both the noun and the verb forms appear in the quotation from the Greek Old Testament. The Greek word is paideia from which we get such words as pedagogy, which means teaching. Paideia included the whole strategy and goals of raising a child.
Thus the biblical concept of discipline includes the whole range of parental responses to a child such as punishment for wrongdoing, affirmation for doing right, encouragement, sharing of goals, and increased responsibility. Part of discipline is management of how difficult obstacles are so that a child is never overwhelmed by impossible challenges nor bored by lack of challenge. The gradual increasing of such difficulties allows the child to grow in their ability to cope and manage life on their own. It is the concept of gradually increasing the difficulty of obstacles that the author of Hebrews is most interested in. From a child's perspective such challenges often seem like punishment for success at the lower level.
The command in verse 7 is endure trials for the sake of discipline. God was treating the readers like children. It felt like painful punishment, but, in fact, God was interested in training and developing their faith, as verse 11 makes clear. The pressure and persecution that they were facing felt like punishment. Yet there is no indication that the author believed his readers had already misbehaved or were in need of punishment from God. They needed to recognize that God was "bring them along" as the word treating literally means. In reality the challenges and increasing difficulty of their lives were a sign of their authentic relationship with God.
The author makes use of a typical Jewish style of argument called "from lesser to greater." If something was true in a lesser relationship or realm it was even more true in the greater relationship or realm. It was a given fact that the readers had human parents who disciplined them and they had learned to respect those parents. If that was true, how much more should they accept the discipline of God and respond with gratitude.
It is possible that the readers of Hebrews had allowed themselves to accuse God of not treating them well. Perhaps some had said, "If God really loves us, why does he allow these things to happen to us?" Such questions may be part of the honest struggle to understand the confusion of the painful things of life. But the answer is not to allow anger and misunderstanding toward God to fester. The answer is that God has higher goals for us than simply our ease and pleasure.
Verse 10 declares that just as parents manage discipline to bring children into adulthood so God allows painful trials in our lives to bring us to share his holiness. Because of his strong Old Testament foundation the author of Hebrews understood that the holiness of God was the essence of God's character. God allows pressure and difficulty in our lives because he wants us to share his very nature.
Verse 11 points out that such discipline is painful. Nowhere does the Bible deny that truth. However, pain is the not the whole truth or even the most important truth about the discipline of God. Discipline will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness. The rich harvest of personal holiness and righteousness is worth the pain of the discipline.
The author returns to the athletic metaphor of verse 1 when he speaks of those who have been trained by God's discipline. The verb trained or exercised is the Greek root from which our words gymnasium and gymnastics come. It is significant that the Greek construction of the verb suggests the on-going results that flow from the events of training and discipline. The author wants us to know that the discipline of God is on going. Each step is result of the previous step and each step leads to a more advanced level of training. The discipline of God will never end - not because God hates us but because he loves us - as God attempts to help us grow more and more like Christ.
The Call to Holiness - Hebrews 12:12-17
Hebrews 12:12-17 is characterized by an imperative mood. The main verb in verses 12, 13, and 14 is a command and verses 15-17 describe the way in which the command of verse 14 is to be carried out. Several modern translations use commands in verses 15 and 16. Thus the central command comes in verse 14 to pursue peace and holiness. There is an urgency on the part of the writer that his readers not fail to become the people God wanted them to be. These commands flow out of his treatment on discipline in the previous paragraph. God disciplines us so that we may share his holiness. Such an insight is of little value unless we act upon it. For that reason the first word of verse 12 is therefore. Because God is working to bring you through the pressures and problems to become more like himself, you must respond appropriately.
Verse 12 draws upon a partial quotation of Isaiah 35:3 to command them to strengthen your drooping hands and weakened knees. The author pictures his readers as boxers who are staggering and dropping their defenses in weakness. The command, though, is not to each of them to tough it out and to try harder. The command is to all of the readers to strengthen each other. This is a command to encourage each other. Brace each other up. Get each other's defense back up. Help each other stay in the battle and continue the race.
The use of Isaiah 35:3 is also important because the following verse, Isaiah 35:4, promises that God will come and deliver his people. The promise of Scripture is that God will help us through the persecution, pressures, and problems of life. But until God arrives we are responsible to strengthen each other. We are not in the battle by or for ourselves. We are a part of a community of faith and as community we are responsible to keep all of us moving ahead until God intervenes on our behalf.
The command of verse 13 is to make straight paths for your feet. The author uses another partial quotation - this time from Proverbs 4:26 in the Greek Old Testament. The point that he wants to make is that the community of faith is responsible for enabling the weak and crippled members to both survive and be healed.
Without a pause the commands continue in verse 14. Pursue peace with everyone and pursue holiness. The word pursue is a strong word that is often translated "persecute" or "hunt" in other contexts. It denotes an intensity in spiritual matters that is rare in contemporary Christianity. The author knows that we cannot survive pressure and problems with a casual attitude. Intense commitment to total obedience is the only way a Christian wins victory in the face of pressure.
Lane (WBC, p. 449) observes that the peace is more than just the subjective feelings of harmony with other people. Peace is first and foremost the objective reality that is created by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Because right relationship with God is restored to us through Christ, we can lay aside all the disagreements and jostling for position between human beings. When we are under pressure we are to pursue right relationship with God knowing that it requires and can create right relationships with those around us.
In a similar fashion holiness is not a human achievement brought about by either our feelings or our performance. Holiness is the very nature of God that is offered to us in Christ. "Holiness is a gift, to which it is necessary to respond with our personal 'Yes'." (Lane, WBC, p. 450) The pursuit of holiness is the discipline of responding to God with an ever more complete "Yes." Our openness to that gift determines the degree to which God will grant to us his own holy nature that is the requirement for entering his presence.
Though the pursuit of holiness is the central command of this section all the surrounding context is concerned with our care for each other. John Wesley understood holiness as perfect love, which meant loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, as he was fond of reminding his hearers. The love of neighbor is described in verse 15 as seeing to it that no one misses out on the grace of God. The love means no bitterness or defilement or immoral or profane motivations destroy the community of faith as verses 15-17 note. Holiness cannot be separated from watch care of each others' souls.
The Choice Between Two Ways - Hebrews 12:18-24
The author is coming near the end of his message of exhortation. Over and over, from this angle and that, he has been coming at the issue of whether his readers would remain faithful to Christ or would yield to the pressure and return to Judaism. Verses 12-17 contained a series of intense exhortations to the unity of the community and faithfulness to Christ.
In verses 18-24 the author lays out the options in another fashion. In the pilgrimage of your lives, he tells his readers, you have not come to Mt. Sinai. You have come to Mt. Zion. Verses 18-21 describe the heritage of Judaism. It is a mixture of divine glory and human fear. It is characterized by the spectacular display of fire, darkness, and trumpet at Mt. Sinai and by terror of being punished for violating some taboo of God.
On the other hand, verses 22-24 describe the heritage of Christian faith. It is described in terms of the heavenly city and the gathering in of both the angels and God's people. The language of verses 18-21 is tense and fearful. It speaks of separation and insecurity. The language of verses 22-24 is warm and inviting. It speaks of belonging and welcome. In the mind of the author his readers had come to Mt. Zion, to all the warmth and blessing of verses 22-24.
The terror of Mt. Sinai did not describe their faith. Yet they were being tempted to abandon Mt. Zion to return to Mt. Sinai. Our author has done his best to paint the options clearly. A return to Mt. Sinai, to Judaism, would be a tragic loss because all the advantages of the superiority of Christ that were developed in chapters 1-10 would be lost. Faithful loyalty to Mt. Zion, as verse 24 makes clear, means loyalty to Christ. Choosing Christ is a choice to keep warmth and welcome and a guaranteed future.
Really, it should have been no choice. But it was and it is. It is easy to read these verses and conclude that anyone in his or her right mind would choose Christ. But a right mind is the not the resource we bring to life's most important decisions. In the final analysis that kind of right mind is also a gift of God.
Verse 24 powerfully describes the grace of God that is at work in Christ. Our author says that we have come to Jesus and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel spoke a word of isolation and hatred between brothers. The blood of Abel spoke a word of guilt and condemnation before God. The blood of Abel speaks in all of our lives at the point of our failure to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
But the blood of Abel is not the only blood that speaks. The blood of Christ speaks a word of pardon and cleansing as we stand before God. The blood of Christ speaks a word of reconciliation and love as we face each other. The blood of Christ speaks a word of re-creation that graciously calls us forward to love of God and love for each other. The blood of Christ speaks the grace of God into our lives. That grace could enable the first readers to remain true to Christ in spite of persecution. It also can enable us to faithfully persevere in the face of any pressures we may experience.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 12:1-24. Look up the Scripture references that were given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed significant to you. Why are they important thoughts?
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer telling the Lord that you are ready to say "Yes" to the gift of his holy nature being placed in your life today.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 12:25-13:16. Focus your attention on Hebrews 12:25-29.
1. Who do you believe the author is talking about when he writes of the "one who speaks" in verse 25? Why do answer the way you do?
2. Verse 28 commands us to give thanks because we are receiving a kingdom that can not be shaken. List some things for which you are thankful because of the unshakable kingdom.
3. Verse 29 describes God as a consuming fire. How does that description make your feel? What does the author mean when he calls God a consuming fire?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 12:25-13:16. Now turn your focus to Hebrews 13:1-3.
1. Verse 1 commands us to continue to love each other. List some ways in which you can express love to specific people within your community of faith.
2. Verse 2 appears to allude to Genesis 18:1-8 and 19:1-3. Read those verses in Genesis. Do you think the command of verse 2 is reasonable? Why or why not? How do you think you should respond to verse 2?
3. What is the common theme uniting the commands of verses 1, 2, and 3? How would you summarize these three verses in your own words?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 13:1-16. Now focus on Hebrews 13:4-8.
1. How does verse 6 provide a good conclusion to verses 4 and 5? How does the Lord help you obey the commands of verses 4 and 5?
2. Verse 7 commands us to remember our leaders. Write a brief prayer for the leaders of your church and country.
3. How does verse 8 fit into the message of verses 4-7? How does verse 8 speak to you in the circumstances of your life?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 13:1-25. Focus in on Hebrews 13:9-14.
1. Verse 9 speaks of our heart being strengthened by grace. Has the study of Hebrews been an expression of the grace of God to strengthen you? If so, how?
2. What benefits come from the death of Christ according to these verses? Have you experienced those benefits yourself?
3. Verse 14 speaks of looking for a city that is to come. Describe the most important features of the "city" for which you are looking.
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 13:1-25. Now focus in on Hebrews 13:15-16.
1. On the basis of these two verses describe the sacrifices you would like to offer to God.
2. What hinders you from living a sacrificial life that daily gives to God the things you have written above?
3. Write a prayer asking God to enable you to live a life of sacrificial praise by overcoming the obstacles and pressures of your life.