Rather than continue with commentary on the “Hall of Faith”, which may have been sufficiently handled in your preaching last week, we are going to set our focus on 12:1-3, which assumes the inspiration the examples of faith (“the so great cloud of witnesses”) sets before the reader and that, indeed, the Christian reader is surrounded by them and is called to be one of them in glory.
With this in mind, the text asks us to think of the Christian life as a race: “Let us run with perseverance,” it says, “the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). And indeed, this race must be run with perseverance, for it is a marathon among marathons, an endurance event par excellence. We were entered in this race at our Baptism (Hebrews 6:4) and it will not be completed until the finishing line is reached at death. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
The metaphor of a race is a universally applicable device — everyone can relate to and/or has participated in some kind of race. When we think of a race, we tend to think of a competitive event. The aim of a race is to cross the finish line first, to beat the fastest competitor, to outdo our rivals. But the race that is set before us as Christians, the Preacher goes on to say, is different. Every metaphor breaks down and here it quickly reaches its limit. We, as Christians, cannot improve our position by hindering the others on the same course. For us there can be no elbowing on the bends, or struggling for the best track, no hoping our fellow athletes will not perform well. For we are not competing against our brothers and sisters in this common struggle. As a matter of fact, we are not competing with anyone in the ordinary sense. We make better progress by encouraging and helping them with every step, for we need each other as members of a team. In our life, we are not racing against others, but mostly against ourselves.
So, this image of our lives as a spiritual race raises some questions for us: Where is this race going? Where is its finishing line? Why should it be a struggle to run this race? What is preventing us from finishing well? Against whom are we struggling? What is the prize or goal? How do we run to win? What coaching do we need? Lots of fodder here for the preacher of this pericope, so long as it arises from and terminates in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
Where is this race going? What are we aiming for? Jesus answered these questions when He told us, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). Our strivings in this race must be directed towards entering the Kingdom of God through the narrow door of faith. Christ, “is the door” (John 10:9). Ah, but if we enter the Kingdom through faith, that is, if we are untied to Christ by faith, why must we strive, when faith must be placed in Christ’s strivings alone, and never in our own? Why run the race, when the doctrine of grace tells us our Lord will carry us right over the line, if only we let Him do it in trust? I do not present this as a question of passing interest. I believe it is a real dilemma and it can be a dangerous one in the minds of many believers. So, the preacher must exercise care to properly distinguish Law from Gospel and salvation from sanctification. I knew a young man who said he was a Christian, though he was not prepared to live a Christian life, because, he reasoned, being a Christian hinges on what you believe, not on what you do. Actually, he was quite right about that. I imagine St. Paul encountered the same way of thinking in Rome and Corinth, to judge by the letters he wrote to the churches in those places.
For example, in his letter to the Roman Christians, immediately after he had explained about the free gift of God’s grace (Romans 5:21) and how all sins are forgiven without any cost to us, St. Paul raises the obvious question which must have been in everyone’s mind. He asks, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1)? Of course, if any sin can be forgiven for Christ’s sake, why not sin all the more and be forgiven all the more? As Michael Horton rhetorically quips, “I like to sin; He likes to forgive: It’s a perfect arrangement.” But the Apostle goes on to explain why this is impossible for the Christian, who has died to sin in baptism and is now raised to walk in new life (Romans 6:3-11). This is what my young man did not understand. There is justification, yes, but with it there is regeneration of the human heart. Consider the Word of God:
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 8:10).
My friend’s fault was not in his logic, which was perfectly sound, and not in his mind, but in his heart. He said he was a Christian, but his heart was elsewhere, not moved and motivated by the real voice of God and His real presence. My friend was not owning the truth that he belonged to another kingdom, with a different kind of ruler, and there is, in fact, an ethic to this kingdom. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Why strive to do the work we cannot do well enough, but Christ has already done on our behalf? There is one reason. The narrow door is the door of faith where all our hopes and destiny are centered in Christ. Good works and a good life will not advance us one inch towards the goal. But bad works (and I include among bad works the neglect of good ones) and a rebellious life will hold us back, because they are destructive to faith. This idea is central to the text which tells us to lay aside every weight and sin which clings to us in order to run with perseverance the race set before us. To put it another way, faith needs the exercise. Faith needs to see with clarity (which is why we must have the Gospel constantly preached to us) and it needs to know that before us has gone a great cloud of witnesses to a forsaking-all-for-faith-kind-of-life. Faith is not a thing which can be stored away in some remote corner of the subconscious and whipped out for an airing every Sunday for an hour or so. It is also not just for when there is an atypical crisis and we find we cannot manage without it (convenient crisis-faith), but otherwise left undisturbed until it can be cashed in on judgement day. Faith, if it is alive, takes us through a constant cycle of repentance and renewal. The Preacher (and St. Paul) chose the image of a race, because it is an active one, full of vitality and effort.
But why must we strive? What is holding us back that we need to run the race with perseverance? There is a prevailing headwind we must run against. If I might adapt the image of the text slightly, think of the race set before you, your life that is, as a boat race. Remember how you are competing against yourself. The follower of Christ, then, is rowing against a very strong tide. We must really persevere to make progress in the right direction when the world we live in is pushing us a different way. But such is the world we live in. One of which St. Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). It is a world where St. Peter warns us to be sober and watchful, for your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8-11). And when we struggle against such a strong tide, we are competing only against the weakness of our own limbs. As Jesus said, the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).
Perhaps your auditors might wonder if it is worth striving and persevering at all. Would it not be easier to sit back as a spectator in this arena? What prize does the race hold for us? It is a race of endurance to persevere in the faith. Jesus has promised, “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). St. Paul has assured us, “if we endure, we shall also reign with Christ, though if we deny him, he will also deny us” (1 Timothy 2:12). The stakes in this race are the highest imaginable, so preach with some fire in your belly.
Finally, we turn to the coaching this text offers us. How do we run to win? “Let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance” (Hebrews 12:1). It is obvious any athlete running with excess weight or with some unnecessary impediment is at a great disadvantage. A serious runner works to keep the weight down, so their stamina will last longer. Of course, the weight of normal clothing is shed in favor of shorts and a light vest. Boots make way for track shoes. And the Christian, too, lays aside excess weight for the race we face.
One keen observer of that race has made these observations. He writes:
“The reason for faltering steps are the ‘weights’ that hold men down. The contender who is not stripped of impediments is hampered by those weights; the concerns, the selfish interests, and the habitual sins which he is loath to leave behind. His weakly sanctified life and crawling pace are evidence he is not facing the sins that plague him nor battling them. Unbridled sin has its own hidden law of gravitation that at every stage pulls its victim a little farther downward. Being so weighted down, the victim cannot run; he cannot walk; he can barely crawl.
“After frequent defeats the willpower to resist is gone. The sentries of conscience that stand at the dividing line of right and wrong have been pushed aside and some very dangerous spots are being crossed. Thus, the sanctified life becomes gradually weaker. The victim consoles himself with the unquestionable fact that ‘all are sinners,’ and in his mind all seems right again…”. 
“What are some of these ‘weights’ or habitual sins? They are sins of the tongue (cursing and gossiping), covetousness and greed. They are fear and doubt, for since they show distrust of God, they surely are terrible, besetting sins. These weights are self-centeredness, material-mindedness, dishonesty, prejudice, lovelessness, self-righteousness, and pharisaism. From all who persist in these sins God calls for a contrite and broken heart. No matter how pet sins may be explained away, no matter how people will excuse themselves for their outbursts of the flesh, such sins are a distinct hindrance and roadblock to faithful discipleship. ‘If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work’ (2 Timothy 2:21).”
The battle is not so much recognizing sins as admitting them. It is also not so much confessing them as repenting them or laying them aside. But we can do it. Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the starter and finisher of our race, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. Looking to Jesus who ran the race before us, perfectly. The all-time record holder of perseverance and endurance, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame. As Jesus endured the Cross, those who stood by Him said, “Come down from that cross, and we will believe. He saved others, but himself He cannot save” (Mark 15:30-31). Here was Jesus plumbing the depths of disgrace, dying without dignity, defeated by a mob. But none could understand that here was Jesus sprinting to the finish, running with perseverance for the line, thundering without weight or impediment down the home straight. If He had saved Himself, if He had come down from the Cross, He would not be the perfecter of our faith, nor would He be its pioneer. For what could we have faith in? But He went on until He could say, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He crossed the line. And on the other side He calls you to finish in His strength. Press on. Press through. Preach it.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Hebrews 11:17-12:3.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 11:17-12:3.