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The Running Man
Several thousand years before Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the big screen as The Running Man (1987), scripture was documenting its own running men and elevating the physical act to a spiritual metaphor. The verbs “run” and “ran” appear over 130 times in the KJV. Perhaps the best known mention of running came from the prophet Isaiah: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall RUN, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (40:31). David adds: “I will RUN the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart” (Psalm 119:32). And again: “For by thee I have RUN through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall” (18:29).
We find the first biblical mention of a running man in Genesis 18. The occasion is a visit by the LORD (the pre-Incarnate Christ) to Abraham and Sarah accompanied by two angels (18:1-16). When Abraham saw the three men, he RAN to meet them, and bowed himself to worship (18:2). It's significant that while Abraham saw three men, he only addressed one of them as his “Lord.” The LORD among them was clearly distinguishable from the other two. After offering to feed his guests, he RAN to fetch “a calf tender and good” (18:7). The Law of First Mention is an important interpretive tool. In this case, it teaches us the best running a man can do is that which takes him into the presence of his LORD to worship and render service.
The purpose of this article is to examine what scripture teaches concerning one of the most important running men in scripture—the NT believer. Our text is Hebrews 12:1-2:
The primary verb in these verses is let us run, modified by several participles, prepositional phrases. Let us run is the translation of τρέχω (trechō), “to run, or walk hastily.” The word “trek” comes from this root. The present tense carries the force: “Keep on running!” It reminds us the writer assumes the best of his target audience. All references to neglect of so great salvation (2:3), falling away (6:6), casting away confidence (10:35) and drawing back (10:39) are not intended to impart doubt, but rather to stir up sober introspection regarding the genuineness of their profession.
Every race has a finish line, the point at which the racer finishes his course. The race for the NT believer is to be like Jesus. At the moment of regeneration, God predestines the believer to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). All of the grace and chastening that come his way in life are designed to form Christ in him as to both character and conduct. One day all believers will cross that finish line with bodies fashioned like unto the glorious body of Christ (Philippians 3:21). Meanwhile, the believer is racing to apprehend that for which Jesus apprehended him (3:12).
The two participles modifying let us run are (1) laying aside, and (2) looking. The verb let us lay aside means “to put away from.” It's a past participle. Translation: “Having put away (laid aside) once for all every weight and the sin that so easily besets us, let us keep on running.” Weight is ὄγκος (ogkos), “a burden, encumbrance.” The passage differentiates between weights and sins. Weights are encumbrances to one's ability to run effectively. A weight causes premature fatigue. Marathon runners typically hit the proverbial wall at mile twenty. At what point do you suppose they'd hit that wall with an extra one-pound weight in each shoe? How about a three-pound waist belt? In like manner, the believer should be constantly examining his life for encumbering weights. A weight could be something as simple as an innocuous habit or something as complex as a friendship that does not lend itself to holiness of life. Jettisoning some weights is a relatively easy task. Laying aside others may involve a degree of personal pain. In the end, the believer must ask: “Will laying aside this [weight] make me a better runner in the quest for Christ-likeness?”
In addition to every weight, the believer is tasked to lay aside the sin that doth so easily beset him. The modern understanding of 'besetting sin' is that spiritual or moral weakness most likely to cause the believer to miss the mark. An exegesis of the phrase, however, and consideration of the context suggest the besetting sin to which Paul refers is the sin of doubt. For a more in-depth analysis and defense of this position, see The Besetting Sin.
The second participial phrase is looking unto Jesus. The verb is present tense. Looking is ἀφοράω (aphoraō), “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something.” The verb conveys a continuous singularity of focus. Hebrews 12:2 is its only usage in the NT, affirming the uniqueness of the Christian race. For the writer's target audience, its primary application is looking unto Jesus alone as opposed to Jesus plus Moses. Jesus IS the reality behind the figures and patterns of the tabernacle. Tabernacle service and observance of other rudimentary elements of Mosaic Law are activities excluded entirely from the new covenant and the race a NT believer runs.
Our text contains two word plays. The first is with the words patience (12:1) and endured (12:2). Both come from the same root. Patience is the noun ὑπομονή (hypomonē), “an abiding under.” Endured is the verb ὑπομένω (hypomenō), “to abide under.” Both words signify patience, endurance, steadfastness. If Jesus ran his race with a patience that led to enduring death on the cross, doesn't that imply a believer who runs with patience might very well endure the same burden? The writer reminds them: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (12:4). In other words: “Your race up to this point has not required of you the same bloodletting the race Jesus ran demanded of him. So keep running!” Scripture says: “tribulation worketh patience” (Romans 5:3). The race a believer runs is fraught with all manner of tribulation. As the grace of God enables him to abide under and work through tribulation, he develops patience—a greater capacity to endure more trouble.
The second is with the phrases “RACE set before us” (12:1) and “JOY set before him” (12:2). In both instances, the verb set before is πρόκειμαι (prokeimai), “to place before in the view of someone.” In 12:1, it is a present passive participle. A literal translation: “The RACE that is continuously being placed before us.” In 12:2, the verb is also a present participle. A literal translation: “The JOY that is continuously being placed before him.” One would think the historicity of Jesus' death would argue for a past tense. But if you understand what the JOY set before Jesus is, the present tense makes perfect sense. The JOY the Father set before his Son was the millions of brethren he would bring into glory (2:10) for his endurance of the cross. That JOY is ongoing as sinners keep hearing the gospel of grace and believing it. It's hard for us to imagine the JOY Jesus experienced after his death when he arrived triumphantly in Abraham's bosom and announced to the OT saints: “It's time to come home!” He led captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8) and took the OT saints into glory! What a time of rejoicing that must have been! For the OT believer, Jesus was the author of faith. It was not until Jesus died on Calvary that he became both the author AND finisher of faith.
Another incentive for running the race with patience is so great a cloud of witnesses. There is speculation about who these witnesses represent. But the context supplies the answer. The “wherefore” points back to Chapter 11. The “we also” is a reference to NT believers in addition to OT believers. All the OT saints listed in Chapter 11 comprise what has been called The Hall of Faith. These individuals were race runners in their own right. They serve as witnesses to the effectiveness of faith and patience BEFORE Christ came. There is also a great cloud of witnesses SINCE Christ came that attest to the same truth. This cloud of witnesses consists of tens of thousands of believers who, by the time of the writing of Hebrews, had established testimonies as race runners who ran with patience.
One of those witnesses is Stephen. The message he preached in Acts Chapter 7 was a historical and theological masterpiece, delivered with Holy Ghost power and conviction. Stephen was a NT running man who DID resist unto blood, striving against sin. With Saul of Tarsus standing close by, consenting unto his death, Stephen crossed the finish line, breaking the tape. Before the last stone deprived him of breath and life, he was still looking unto Jesus...and discovered Jesus was looking at him. How's that for a singularity of focus and the reciprocation thereof?
The NT believer is a running man engaged in the life-long pursuit of Christ-likeness. His race involves (1) the laying aside of weights (encumbrances) and the sin that so easily besets him, and (2) a looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of his faith. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. According to scripture, God the Father has seated the NT running man in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6). Any way you look at it, the race for Christ-likeness is a race worth running!