In high school, I was a runner, specializing in the 400-meter dash. It’s funny 400m could be a dash, but I loved it. Then, during my junior year, my coach asked me if I’d run the 800-meter race for our district competition. The day came, I lined up for the race, and when the gun went off—I ran. Immediately, I was in front, partly because I forgot this was a race of endurance, not just speed. By the time I crossed the 400m mark, I was in the lead. That’s when it hit me: I still had 400m to go. By the time I got to the last 200m, I did what any normal, able-bodied teenager would do… I faked an injury.
With all the dramatic flair I could muster, I grabbed my hamstring, hobbled to the field, and rolled around on the grass for a minute (for spectators who were still watching). I watched my coach walk through the gate, across the field, and up to me. He peered down and said, “The moment you took your eyes off the finish line, you quit the race.”
Hebrews 12: 1-3 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
The New Testament letters have an urgency about running the race of faith that doesn’t exist today, and I find this interesting. The writers believed Jesus would return within their lifetime, and this apocalyptic sense became central to understanding the race of faith. The early church was to endure obstacles and trials that came with being a minority religion because Christ would soon return and set all things right. They were to be exemplars of the gospel, living each day as if Christ would return. The author of Hebrews is urging the small Christian community to run with endurance in the face of peril, cast aside all things weighing them down, and set their eyes on the prize: the promised return of Christ.
Isn’t this different from our context? Apart from the few claiming to know the date and time of Christ’s return, I’m not sure how many of us live oriented toward apocalypse. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Yet unless we know the promised goal, we can’t expect to endure the race. No one signs up for an athletic event without knowing when or where the finish will be. Frankly, most of us won’t make decisions unless we know what the end goal is. Sure, we might take risks, but those risks are often taken only if the end result is worthwhile.
What can be more worthwhile than eternity with our Lord and Savior? What I’m presenting is not hellfire and brimstone from those on street corners but a new heaven and earth—a new reality with no more sickness, disease, suffering, or strife. All things will be made whole, and Christ’s light will shine so brightly there will no longer be night, hunger, or “isms” like sexism, classism, or racism. The promised end.
Nothing meant more to the early church than finishing the race. Christ was the forerunner, a symbol of God’s faithfulness. He was substance as flesh and blood, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross. Now we’re ready to talk about this race.
A picture in front of the spinning machines in my gym, something I stare at during my last few minutes, says the following: “It will hurt. It will take time. It will require dedication. It will require willpower, you will need to make healthy decisions. It requires sacrifice. You will need to push your body to its max. There will be temptation but, I promise you, when you reach your goal, it’s worth it.”
This is the race of faith. The race will hurt: As humans in this reality, we are almost guaranteed suffering, pain, or heartbreak. The race will take time because our ultimate hope is dependent upon God and not on ourselves, and it takes the entirety of our lives. It will require dedication and willpower. When all else fails, are you willing to still stand for the sake of the joy set before you? You will need to make healthy decisions. Staying on the path requires sacrifice, like giving up poor habits or old ways of thinking. You’ll need to push your body, mind, and spirit. There will be days you will want to throw in the towel, but don’t give up... God is faithful.
The race of faith requires us to set our eyes on Jesus, who showed us what it means to endure. In this passage, the Greek word for “look to” (ἀφοράω) includes “to look away,” meaning we are to look away from everyone and everything else, concentrating on Jesus. Jesus is our eternal promise, proof of God’s faithfulness, and he will return to reign over Heaven and Earth in its new splendor and glory.