Hebrews 12:1-17

Hebrews 9-13 (WBC)William Lane

Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner

Hebrews, John Owen

Sermon Transcript

The Broad St. Run will be taking place here in the great city of Philadelphia pretty soon. I’ve never run in it, but it seems like a fun time. Any friends of mine who have run it always have good things to say about it. The summer Olympics will be taking place this year as well. I’ve never run in the Olympics either & neither have any of my friends. I’d imagine that a good reason most people will sign up for the Broad St. Run and not the Olympics is that the Olympics require among many things a certain mindset, level of focus, and belief that one can achieve victory. This leads to counting the cost of what will be required and a decision to commit to the process of preparation. For the Broad St Run, there may be a small number of individuals who are racing to win, but there’s room for many others to do it just for fun with no expectation of winning. Training may be involved, but stakes are a lot lower. In today’s passage, we will look at a unique race that has been set before those of us who are in Christ. It is a race of higher stakes than even the Olympics. In order for us to run well and complete this race, this passage will exhort us to remove every hindrance, look to Jesus, and run with endurance. We will consider 3 points:

  • The significance of the race
  • Embracing the Father’s discipline
  • Staying in the race


The Significance of the Race (v1-4)


Throughout the letter, the author has used quite a bit of imagery, primarily references to Old Testament people, roles, and practices. Here, the author introduces the illustration of a race. It is clear that it’s not just any race. It’s presented as a race that has been run by many before us, a cloud of witnesses, referring to the many who received their commendation by faith in the previous chapter (11:2). One commentary suggests that those in Hebrews 11 are witnesses both in the sense that they serve as examples who have gone before us and in the sense that they are witnessing us run our race.

Note the writer’s use of the words, “we,” “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and “let us.” Today in a culture that caters to consumers and praises individualism, we receive a lot of “me” and “my” messaging, which, by design, drives spending, fueling our economy. Such messaging, whether through ads, music, or our current favorite Netflix series, appeals to our infatuation with the idea of doing what we want, having the things we like, and being who, what, and where we want to be.

While such an idea seems reasonable and even good, eventually this conflicts with what the Bible presents as the Christian life. First, Jesus said to be a follower of Christ is to deny oneself, take up one’s cross daily and follow him. (Luke 9:23) Furthermore, we are no longer our own because we have been bought with a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) That price was the blood of Jesus, our Redeemer. (Ephesians 1:7) A counselor I had years ago used to say, “A look at our decisions will tell us what we believe our lives are about.” How might your decisions with use of time, money, relationships and other resources reflect what you believe your life is about? Do they demonstrate an understanding that you are no longer your own? Or might they reflect that areas of your life are still off-limits, or perhaps in a tug-of-war with the rule of Christ?

Even as we grow in submission to Christ, we are not meant to grow in isolation. The ways of our culture incline us to take a consumeristic approach to even living out our faith. We check out the music, the preaching style, the kids’ ministry, the parking, the coffee, and the font in the logo before deciding whether “this is the church for me.” These are all worth considering (well, most), but ultimately, this is not the design for the Christian life given to us in Scripture. By the blood of Christ, we have not only been saved from God’s wrath. We have been brought into a community, a family of other believers, and we are now in this race set before us…together. Might some of us today be quietly, yet significantly struggling in our faith and obedience to Christ because we are attempting to run alone? Are we not investing in good, meaningful, edifying relationships & community with other brothers & sisters that allow us to know & be known by one another? That’s what puts us in position to practice encouraging one another daily as Chapter 3:13 instructs. Consider meeting up with a fellow member for lunch or coffee over the next week or so. Pray about welcoming someone to your home for an edifying conversation over a light snack, if not a meal.

One more thought here: The cloud of witnesses of Chapter 11 all lived in the past. Their examples of faith and obedience are left for the recipients of this letter and for us today. There have been people in your lifetime who have modeled faith, obedience, and endurance, which is, at least in part, why you are now in the race. One day you will join the cloud of witnesses. Who might be watching your example of faith, obedience, and endurance today? What will they have gathered about Jesus from observing your race? How might they be encouraged from your example to run the race set before them with endurance?

The significance of a race is often determined by the significance of its reward. What is the reward for running this race? Chapter 4:9-11 tells us “…there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (referring to the unbelieving Israelites who were led by Moses) Chapter 11 tells us that there is a better country, a city which God has prepared. 

As we look throughout Scripture we see numerous references to the reward that awaits those who endure. Jesus says to rejoice and be glad because of your great reward in heaven, particularly for enduring persecution, just as the prophets did, loving your enemies, and giving & expecting nothing in return, which demonstrates that you are true sons & daughters of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Matthew 5:12; Luke 6:35) Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” James encourages us with these words: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (1:12) This is not just any race and it is not just any reward. It is better than anything this temporary life can offer and yet will not come easily. We must, by God’s grace, strive for it.

Striving requires endurance and endurance in this race is fueled by faith, which the end of chapter 10 and all of chapter 11 make clear. The next part of chapter 12:1 instructs us that every weight and sin which clings so closely must be set aside. Continuing with his analogy, the writer has in mind any excess weight that would impede upon one’s ability to run well. The important word here is, “every.” This analogy is to say that this race will require us to identify every thought, every habit, and every distraction that interferes with devotion to Christ and commit to the work of removing it. There can be many seemingly harmless, but subtle weights that, though not inherently sinful, can lead to sin. Watching a favorite show on Netflix isn’t necessarily wrong but considering the significance of the race set before us, it’s worth considering whether binge watching a show that stirs your affections for things of the world more than they cause you to delight in Jesus might be a weight or sin. Working diligently at your job or for your degree is a plus. Dating relationships are good and even important. But if you notice your mood is easily swayed by your productivity at work or by your sense of security in the dating relationship, considering the race that is set before us, perhaps you should pray about whether it’s become a weight or sin, interfering with your devotion to Christ.

Each of us has weight and sin that we should be doing the work of removing from our lives so that we can run with endurance the race that is set before us. Verse 2 of chapter 12 tells us what will help us do it: Looking to Jesus will help us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. In addition to being the founder of our salvation, which Hebrews 2:10 tells us, Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, having endured the cross, despising the shame. To despise the shame means that He disregarded it in view of the joy that was set before Him, which was His victory over sin and death and our salvation! He is the glorious victor and He is who we get to fix our gaze upon as we run this race!

My son, Darien, is 2 and can be territorial with his toys at times. We have a music room at the house and he’s got a few toy instruments on the floor in the music room. If I join him on the floor and pick up one of his drumsticks to play his drum kit, he might reach and grab the drumstick from me, even though he’s playing with something else. But when I get up to go sit at my keyboard and fire up the drum machine & other recording equipment, he sees everything light up and is blown away by my masterful musicianship. He jumps up, dropping & leaving behind everything he was previously clinging to, and comes running to climb up into my lap to join me in what I’m doing. Whatever he was so consumed with before somehow doesn’t matter as much now.

In this life, we can easily be preoccupied, territorial, and weighed down with what amounts to toys compared to the infinitely superior glory of Jesus Christ. As you run this race, I just want to encourage you, in the words of the great hymn, to:


“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”


Here again, the author is doing something he’s been doing throughout the entire letter: emphasizing Christ’s superiority. The faith that those from the OT in Hebrews 11 had to cling to was the very same faith to which the readers of this letter must cling, only now its security is even more evident because it is rooted and revealed in Christ, its founder, and Jesus himself ran his race first and has received his reward, seated at the right hand of the throne of God! Those in the OT endured by faith without having Jesus as their example. How much more are the recipients of this letter, and we today, enabled to endure, looking to Jesus!

We must consider the hostility He endured from sinners so that we do not grow weary or fainthearted. The writer, for added perspective, points out that the readers of this letter, though they’ve endured some persecution, have not yet suffered to the point of shedding blood. I would imagine that almost none of us here today have suffered for the cause of Christ to the point of shedding blood. From that perspective, may looking to Jesus help us endure not only the annoying neighbor or nasty coworker, but may it help us endure when we experience mistreatment for our faith and focus on the race set before us.



Embracing the Father’s Discipline (v5-11)


           The writer then offers another helpful perspective: Consider what you’re enduring as discipline. God disciplines those he loves & he chastises his children. A more helpful way of reading verse 7 is, “Endure hardship as discipline.” In verse 5 & 6 we receive 2 simple, but important admonitions, quoted from Proverbs 3:11-12:

  • Don’t regard it lightly.
  • Don’t become weary of it.

Why? A few reasons: 1. Discipline is evidence of God’s love for us. Verse 6 says, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves…” 2. It’s evidence of sonship. Verse 7 asks, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” Verse 8 continues, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” 3. It’s so that we may share in his holiness, according to verse 10.

Pause and think about the holiness of God. This line could be easily overlooked if read too quickly. God is holy. Perfect. Sinless. Stainless. Pure. He is light and in Him there is no darkness. He is sovereign. He is love. He is a consuming fire. He is a fierce terror and dread to His adversaries. He is a shield and a fortress to those who take refuge in Him. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness. He is good. His mercy is everlasting. His truth endures to all generations. He forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin. He is omniscient. Omnipresent. Omnipotent. He is the King of Glory. Consider the mercy and kindness shown to us, sinners, once enemies of God because of our treasonous betrayal, that we would be so privileged to share in his holiness. He originally created male and female in His image and after His likeness and blessed them, instructing them to be fruitful and multiply, further spreading the display of His image and glory here on earth. He gave mankind the authority to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over all the earth and everything in it. I can’t begin to imagine the pure reflection of God’s holiness and other qualities of His beautiful character that were present and vividly displayed in mankind before the fall, which only further magnifies the tragedy of the fall, the terrible departure of mankind from unity and fellowship with a holy God to sinful betrayal and self-centered enmity with God. May we rejoice as we consider that though we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, living in the passions of our flesh, and by nature children of wrath, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ, by grace, through faith. Let us remember that the discipline the Father gives is so that we might share in His holiness. In the moment it seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.


Staying in the Race (v12-17)


Having a refreshed understanding of what the Father’s discipline is producing, we come to the writer’s conclusion: “Lift your drooping hands, strengthen your weak knees.” The readers of this letter would have recognized, because of their strong familiarity with the OT that the author is referring to Isaiah 35:3, which reads, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” The book of Isaiah has some similar themes to the letter to the Hebrews. God’s people have cooled off in faithfulness to God to say the least, and are being warned through Isaiah to return to Him. Here, in chapter 12:12 the writer is saying, “It’s time for some of you to perk back up!” You were doing well (10:32-34), but you started slacking. How? 1. You became dull of hearing (5:11-14). Romans 10:17 tells us that, “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  How else? 2. Neglecting the gathering (10:25). One of the most essential means by which we are formed and developed spiritually is through the preached Word of Christ. And where does that happen? At the weekly gathering. It seems that developing the habit of neglecting the gathering is a natural progression of becoming dull of hearing. If you’re here today and you sense that you may have become dull of hearing, or you’re listening to this recording and know that you’ve neglected the gathering, I encourage you to pray & talk with one of the elders to help get you back on track. (no pun intended) It’s essential if you’re going to stay in the race.

So the writer alludes to Israel’s plight during Isaiah’s time, encouraging his readers to consider the benefit of the Father’s discipline, and strengthen those weak knees and drooping hands. Verse 13 & following help us see what is necessary to stay in the race: “Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” A good number of them have sustained some injuries to their faith, whether by hardship & persecution or from unnecessary weight and sin. They can’t afford to continue the race on unstable footing. It is only going to cause what is already lame to be put out of joint. One commentary interprets the warning of being put out of joint to mean complete falling away, disqualification, and apostasy. So the writer says, make straight paths for your feet. The language of straight vs. crooked paths would have also been familiar to the readers of this letter because of the well-known language and wisdom of the psalms & proverbs. Straight paths are associated with righteousness, while crooked paths are associated with the devious and the wicked. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” Psalm 1.

What does making straight paths look like? The writer provides some wisdom in the following verses. The first word he uses in verse 14 is, “Strive.” Strive denotes effort & intentionality. Two things he says to strive for: 1. Strive for peace with everyone & 2. Strive for holiness. Why? Because it is the evidence that the Lord’s discipline, which we just read about, is accomplishing its intended purpose. Remember, verse 11 says that the Father’s discipline will produce a peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Next in v15, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” In other words, look out for one another. At the beginning we talked about how Scripture eventually conflicts with the individualistic ways of our culture. 1 Corinthians 12:15 says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” If you see a brother or sister beginning to wander, reach out. Check in. This is another reason why regular gathering is necessary. Allows for us to care for one another spiritually. Again, this will only matter when you recognize the significance of this race. The writer goes on to give 2 ways to see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God: 1. No root of bitterness and 2. No one is sexually immoral or unholy.

“No root of bitterness,” while it can be read literally, is also a call back to Deuteronomy 29:18-19: “Be sure there is no root among you bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” This refers to those who abandon the Lord, yet think they’re in the clear with him (bitter root), and are thereby influencing others to think similarly (bitter fruit).

This is a good example of the necessity of understanding church membership & church discipline. As a church we are committed to one another’s spiritual health and that sometimes requires refraining or delaying someone’s admission into membership. Sometimes it means removing an existing member. A wrong understanding of the gospel can lead someone into a false sense of conversion, which can then mislead others. A great book that explores this is, “Church Membership,” by Jonathan Leeman.

And finally, “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” The purpose for referring to Esau as sexually immoral isn’t completely clear. Possibly because of his marriage to Hittite women. But this is a brief cautionary tale that is relevant to all we’ve covered today. You can find the original account of this story Genesis 25:29-34. Esau came back from being in the field and was hungry. His brother Jacob was cooking some stew. Esau asked for some and Jacob told him to sell his birthright for it. Esau agreed, ate the stew and went on his way. Verse 34 adds, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Birthright mattered to God. (Deut 21:15-17) The son with the birthright assumed authority & responsibilities of the father upon his death. The son with the birthright received a double portion of the father’s inheritance upon death as well. Esau threw away his future for a bowl of stew, then regretted it after it was too late. This is a picture of disregard for the greater blessing & long-term reward in pursuit of immediate gratification. It portrays a disposition fixed on the temporal and that disregards what matters to God. If we are to run this race with endurance and stay in it, we must grow beyond a short-sighted perspective, choose to live our lives by faith, and believe in God’s promise of reward even though we can’t see it with our natural eyes.



           There is a race set before us and we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Therefore, we must remove every hindrance, we must look to Jesus, and we must run with endurance.