The Christian life is a marathon of endurance. How well are you running your race? Alistair Begg counsels us that in order to run well, we must deal with the entanglements that slow us down. Both good gifts that disrupt our focus and sins that cause us to stumble can hinder our spiritual progress. To overcome such obstacles, we must fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, as well as our race’s prize.
I want to draw your attention to these opening verses of chapter 12 and make a beginning to our studies in this great closing section, now, of the letter to the Hebrews.
The Christian life is described in many metaphors in the New Testament—indeed, throughout all of the pages of Scripture. And it is clear from a consideration of them that there is nothing static about being a Christian; that the Christian life is a journey; that we are not tourists, as it were, settling in a particular place of residence and then making day trips simply to return again and again to the same point of departure, nor are we simply wanderers lost somewhere in our own personal interests concerning what it might mean to know God. But the Bible makes it very, very clear that when God reaches into our lives, he redeems us and we become pilgrims, to use an old-fashioned word. We become at the same time aliens—resident aliens. And we have a destination in view, and it is to that point that we are moving. Up until that point, prior to faith in Christ, we were aimless; we were without God and without hope in the world. That’s what the Bible says. But now that we have been brought to him, to an understanding of who he is and what he has done, then we have begun on a journey.
Now, the way in which that journey is then referred to is, of course, in a whole variety of ways. And one of the most classic illustrations of it is in terms of athletic imagery, and not least of all the picture of a race. And that is why, right here at the end of verse 1, it is a “race” that is “marked out for us,” and it is this “race marked out for us” that we are told we must now “run with perseverance.”
Now, Paul says the same thing in a number of places. For example, in 1 Corinthians chapter 9, he says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” He’s referring there not to small local competitions, in which there were a number of prizes, but he is referring to the kind of Olympic events, or the Isthmian Games, where in major events, only one person would win the laurel wreath. And using that imagery, Paul on that occasion says to his readers, “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
So in other words, we should be in no doubt that if our lives have been touched and changed by Christ, one of the things we’re involved in is a race. A race. And the question is, “How am I running?” “How am I running?” And “Am I running, or am I watching? Am I pursuing, or am I stumbling?”
People today speak in terms of spiritual things in all kinds of terminology. If you listen to them in coffee shops, as I do with frequency―at least with the frequency in which I find myself in coffee shops―I am intrigued to hear the kind of information that comes out of the mouths of individuals.
I was most recently sitting on an early morning, listening to two ladies ranging from all manner of subjects on the matter of spirituality. It had to do with tarot cards. It had to do with channeling into your energy source. Oh, goodness, it had to do with all kinds of different things! And I wanted desperately to intrude on the conversation and say, “Excuse me, I wonder if I might join you?” And I thought it would be dreadfully misunderstood, and so I had to bite my tongue. But as I listened to them, they were talking in terms of mystical speculation, they were talking in terms of enthusiastic feelings, they had all kinds of philosophical jargon that they were bandying about. And so often people think that that is what Christianity is. Well, it certainly feeds our minds and stirs our hearts, but it is far more than that. It involves, always and in every case, action. To be a Christian is to be introduced to a life of steady persistence. And it is this issue which the writer now brings before his readers.
At the end of chapter 10, you may recall, he had been encouraging them, including himself along with them, pointing out that while there were those who were losing heart on the journey, while there were some who were tempted to lie down in the course of the race, he didn’t want them, in 10:35, to “throw away” their “confidence,” but rather they should understand that it would be “richly rewarded” if they would persevere. And it is to this same theme that he is going return, or has returned here in chapter 12. He ended chapter 10 by saying, “We’re not the kind of people who quit in the middle of the race.” That’s a paraphrase, but it is the picture: “We’re not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but we’ve begun, and so we will continue.” And in order to help them to consider a life of steady persistence, he has spent all of this time in chapter 11 bringing before their mind’s eye this great “cloud of witnesses,” as he refers to them in this first verse. And the witnesses are there for us to look at them, as we have seen. They are not there in order that they might look at us.
It is, of course, a wonderful picture to consider the possibility that Noah and David and Joseph and Abraham and Isaac were looking, as it were, over the portholes of heaven, and they were cheering us on, and they were saying, “Come on, now! We’ve finished, and we’d like you to finish.” It is a wonderful picture. Unfortunately, it is not one that we can substantiate from the Bible. We can’t imagine that our loved ones who have gone before us, if they were given a vantage point from heaven looking down on the way in which some of us are running the race, could possibly call their experience heaven. It would not be heaven to know how well some of us are stumbling around. And so, consequently, the witnesses are here so that we might look at them, not in order that they might look at us.
And the feats of bravery which we’ve been looking at in these days, and the tales of victory, are there not in order that we might sit around and simply dream, not that we might be trapped in some kind of unrealistic notions, but rather that we might follow inspiration with application. There are all kinds of people who are inspired all over the place: “Oh, I’m so inspired,” they will tell us. “I’m inspired to do this, and I’m inspired to do that.” And they’re so busy being inspired to do everything that they never do anything at all. They simply sit around getting inspired. They read books on whatever it is they’re getting inspired about. They can quote you in the various ways in which you should apply yourself to these various pursuits. They can articulate it with great ability. And yet they’re absolutely horrible if ever they come to try.
Now, the writer recognizes how dangerous such a thing is, and so he says, “Here, let me say, in light of what I’ve been telling you: since we’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, I want you to run the race that’s marked out for you.”
And if you’re going to run this race, it means dealing with, first of all, the stuff that slows us down. The stuff that slows us down. I want to think with you for just a moment tonight about the kind of stuff that slows us down in seeking to run the race of the Christian life. It may not be immediately what comes to our minds. We’ll tend to think in far more melodramatic terms than the ones I’m about to share with you.
The Christian runner has to get rid of even the innocent things which might impede our progress. So here’s the question: “Are there innocent things in my life—allowable things, things that the Bible does not deny me access to—which are actually impeding my ability to run the race of the Christian life? Do I cherish opinions, do I have a disposition, or is my conduct—even allowable conduct—preventing me from running the race with perseverance?” You see, it is very important that we don’t simply beware the intrusion of pursuits which are innocent but also the intrusion of those things which are praiseworthy.
Let me give you an illustration. Some years ago, in ’86, when Dr. Hall and I went to Africa, one of the countries that we visited was Kenya. And in visiting Nairobi, we visited the hangers where they kept a number of the planes which were used for missionary endeavors― some very nice planes that would be well known to those of you who are familiar with single- and twin-engine flying here in the States. And certainly, from the outside they look just like any aeroplane that you would see parked at any runway here in a small airport in America. But when you got inside them and opened the doors, something struck you forcibly, and that was that they were stripped down to the bare minimum. They had arrived with very nicely upholstered seats; they had torn them out and left them simply with the bare bones of the structure, the metallic structure, with just a thin canvas covering. The fascia of the dashboard, which had been very, very nicely put together, that had been torn out and dispensed with as well. The padding which lined the doors where they had the window crankers, that was all gone as well. In fact, there wasn’t an extraneous piece of material left inside the aeroplane. Why? Because it’s wrong for missionaries to fly nice aeroplanes? No. Because it didn’t allow them to achieve their objective. They needed those planes to be as light as possible so that they might take as much by way of medical supplies as possible. And so they were prepared to sit on less than wonderful seats and in surroundings that were less than luxurious surroundings, not because it was wrong but because it wasn’t best.
Most of us who are serious about running the race of the Christian life are not impeded in our journey by dramatic and stirring and prolonged sinfulness. Not that we’re incapable of it, but most of us are not impeded by that. Most of are actually impeded by the toleration of allowable, innocent, and praiseworthy things which we have unwittingly allowed us to divert from the objective of being there at the finish.
For example, family life. Family life. Well, surely nobody in their right mind would take on family life as something that could impede the Christian life. Yes! You go to churches, and they say, “This is a family-centered church.” Then it’s the wrong kind of church. For the only kind of church is a God-centered church. “Oh, we can’t come and worship with God’s people because of our family.” “Oh no, I won’t be able to be involved in the opportunity for outreach because of my family.”
Now, does the Bible teach that we should be concerned about our families? Absolutely! But what did Jesus have to say? He said, “If anybody would like to follow me, if anyone was considering being a committed disciple of mine, and was not prepared to hate their father and mother, their brother and their sister, and everyone else in that structure for sake of myself and the gospel, then they shouldn’t even begin the journey.”
Now, you say, “That’s kind of dramatic!” “Kind of”? It’s staggeringly dramatic! Is it hyperbole? To some degree. But not for the Muslim convert. Not for the young man that Sue and I met in Prestonwood, in Dallas, a few weeks ago, who came to me and told me of his conversion to Christianity; told me of his father, a well-known surgeon in the South; told me of his baptism; and told me that he had no contact ever since that day with any member of his family. They had thrown him out of the house, refused to return his phone calls, did not reply to his letters, and wanted nothing to do with him at all. So when he sings “I have decided to follow Jesus,” he knows exactly what he’s talking about.
We’re in grave danger, loved ones, of so becoming preoccupied with innocent and praiseworthy things that it’s actually stuff that’s stumbling us.
What about diligence in business? Diligence in business. Is that wrong? No, it is lauded in the Bible. Is it innocent? Yes. Is it praiseworthy? Absolutely. The parable of the talents would help us to that end, if we had nothing else. And yet, nevertheless, diligence in business may make a fool of us.
What about an interest in theology? An interest in theology? Could an interest in theology trip us up and stumble us? Absolutely! It happens all the time. Because while theology is the story of a knowledge of God, there are individuals who are so interested in systematic theology that they don’t have any knowledge of Jesus hardly at all. And they’re so concerned about dotting the i and crossing the t, they’re a pain in the neck at every Bible study; they always bother you with a question that no one can answer; they’re always consumed with all these issues of the rightness and tightness of everything. And you know me well enough to know that I believe that doctrine is vital, and I wouldn’t embrace theological vagueness. But I’m talking about somebody who has a morbid preoccupation, and it’s a “stuff that hinders.”
“Let[’s] throw off everything that hinders.” Says the Scottish commentator Brown, “Every earthly pursuit, however innocent in itself, when it interferes with the cultivation of Christian dispositions and the practice of Christian duties, becomes a weight which must be laid aside.” Can be the reading of good literature. It can be a preoccupation with your garden. It can be absolutely anything at all. There are many people who have amounted to very little for Jesus Christ, and it is not, again, because they engaged in some dreadful, willful, sinful practice, but it is because they did not take care of the stuff that makes a man or a woman stumble. It’s what he says.
When you go to NikeTown, and you look at those first shoes―they have them in there, the ones that were apparently made on Phil Knight’s wife’s waffle iron, if you believe those stories. On a Saturday morning, when she was making him waffles, he suddenly had the bright idea that he could make a waffle sole. And you look at those shoes, and you say, “Did people really win races in those great clodhoppers?” And that’s only a matter of thirty years ago. You go back beyond that, and you look at the skis that the Alpine skiers won Olympic events in, and you look at them, you say, “It’s not possible! Nobody could wear those ridiculous looking things and be successful.” You look at the quality of the material that they were playing soccer matches in, in the early 1950s and the late 1940s. Goodness, they weighed so much that it must’ve been very hard just to run around! And today we have it to a fine art, stripped down to the absolute minimum—for anything else would impede progress.
Now, not only is there the stuff that hinders us, but there’s the sin that tangles us. The sin that trips us up.
The picture here is of a garment. I was playing golf not so long ago, and it wasn’t a particularly nice day, but it wasn’t what you would call freezing. And as I looked down on the par three where I was waiting to tee off, there was a gentleman down on the green, and he was wearing a cowboy hat, he had a jacket that was of a heavy, woolly material with big leather sleeves, and then he had a bright-red woolen scarf, which was dangling down both sides like the old Rod Stewart days and was swinging underneath him as he tried to putt. And I said, “You know, there’s a purist up ahead. There’s somebody who is obviously passionate about the game of golf.” No, he was there—it was a social exercise. Everything was swinging in the breeze and impeding everything, but it didn’t seem to matter. He had a wonderful time. He had a lousy score and a wonderful time. I admire him for having a wonderful time, don’t you? But if he’d been serious, he would’ve ditched the jacket, even if he was cold. He would have got rid of the ridiculous cowboy hat, and the scarf would have been nowhere to be seen.
You got anything that’s tripping you up in the race? You tolerating a scarf? “It’s cozy. I like this sin. I like to keep it with me. I like this old hat. It’s been with me a long time. It’s a faithful friend.” Got any untied shoelaces? Isn’t that what your mother always told you? “Make sure you tie your shoelaces before the race starts.” She always told you that, and she told you, “And don’t take your eyes off me”—which demanded, of course, that she was standing in the right position. Won’t take much to bring a person down: an untied shoelace; a preoccupation with pleasure; the desire to control everything, to be a powermonger; the dramatic desire to have possessions. Or what about the sin of unbelief, the sin that was confronting these poor souls here, the temptation to be devoid of faith?
“Listen,” he says, “running the race means that we are dealing with the stuff that slows us down, dealing with the sin that trips us up, and finally, we are running with our eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus.” According to verse 3, he tells us that if we are to avoid dropping out through distraction or collapsing with exhaustion, we need to focus. And we mustn’t focus on the witnesses. They are a wonderful group, but you will have already thought about the fact that some whose names appear here were not perfect. ’Course they weren’t perfect! There’s only one perfect: Jesus. So if we go looking hard enough in the stories here—the story of Jacob, the story of David, the story of Samson—we’ll find enough in there that will allow us to be distracted, maybe enough to encourage us to do wrong things. And so the writer says, “I’ve given you this wonderful list, and they’re there for your encouragement. But you will be sustained in running the race not by a consideration of the witnesses, not ultimately by a consideration of the goal, nor by a consideration of the promised reward, but by keeping your eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
If you think about it, when people let us down, to whom should we look? To Jesus. When we find ourselves disappointed, when we find ourself discouraged by our own inability to run the race, when we find ourself saying, “I don’t know if I have another ounce of energy in me to run another step in this jolly Christian race”—well, who you gonna look to? To Christ.
And when he says “fix[ing] our eyes on Jesus,” the Jesus upon whom we fix our eyes is the Jesus of the Bible, not any Jesus of an imagination. It’s the Jesus that he has introduced us to here in the book of Hebrews. Who is this Jesus upon whom we fix our eyes? Well, he is a compassionate Savior. That’s why he uses the name Jesus. “You [will] give him the name Jesus,” said the angel “because he will save his people from their sins.” And he uses Christ’s human name; he says, “Let[’s] us fix our eyes on Jesus.” When you’re tempted to quit in the race that’s marked out for you, consider the fact that when he faced the race marked out for him, he endured it, he despised the shame, he went right through it, he breasted the tape. Consider the fact that this Jesus is the “author” and the “perfecter” of your faith. He is the “pioneer.” He is the one back in 2:10 who is leading many sons to glory: “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Jesus is the only one who is able to perfect our faith.
Do you ever look at yourself and say, “I don’t know if I’m making much progress in this race at all? I think I’ve been running on this spot all of my life. I keep passing the same lamppost. In fact, I’m not sure that I passed it yet. How am I going to perfect my faith?” Not by a stirring of my moral integrity, as important as it is. Not by an emphasis on my devoted service. Not by focusing on my spiritual experiences, no matter how wonderful they might have been. But only Christ authors and perfects faith. That’s why when Paul writes to the Philippians, he says, “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Fix your eyes on this compassionate Savior. Fix your eyes on the pioneer and the perfecter of faith. Fix your eyes on the one who was the devoted servant who came to do the will of God. Fix your eyes on he who is the effective high priest, who “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Fix your eyes upon he who is the patient sufferer, enduring the “opposition from sinful men.” And fix your eyes upon he who is the enthroned Lord. And he says, “Remember that in your struggle against sin, you haven’t resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
The Christian life is not passivity; it’s activity. It’s a race. There is stuff that we need to set aside. There is sin with which we need to deal. There is one to whom we need to look. Hebrews 12, in these opening verses, says to us, “Don’t give up too soon. Don’t relax before the tape. Don’t collapse until you’re past the post.”
Let us pray together:
O God our Father, we thank you for the simplicity and clarity of your Word. And we thank you for the example of Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And we pray that you will fill our hearts with praise and our lips with song. To the glory of your great name we ask it. Amen.
 See Ephesians 2:12.
 1 Corinthians 9:24 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 9:24 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 10:39 (paraphrased).
 Luke 14:26 (paraphrased).
 John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, ed. David Smith (Edinburgh, 1862), 2:156.
 Matthew 1:21 (NIV 1984). See also Luke 1:31.
 Heb 12:2 (NIV).
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.