Test Case—Hebrews 12:1-2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Step 1: What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
We do not know the author. We do know that he wrote this as a “word of exhortation” (13:22). His focus is on Jesus Christ, and he references the Old Testament extensively. Also, we find urgency in the message.
The believers addressed probably came out of a Jewish background, possibly around Rome. The letter was most likely written in the mid-60s A.D., just prior to severe persecution by Nero. They seem to be facing the temptation to reject Christianity and return to Judaism in order to avoid persecution. So the author wrote to encourage a group of discouraged believers drifting away from real Christianity by bolstering their commitment to draw near to God and to endure in commitment to Christ.
What about literary context? The word “therefore” links back to the previous section, which is Hebrews 11. This chapter presents example after example of how the saints of old persevered in faith. Then you have Hebrews 12:1-2 where the author uses the image of a race and the example of Jesus himself to encourage his readers to endure in the faith. Then in the following paragraph (Hebrews 12:3-11), the author uses the analogy of a parent’s love for a child to explain why believers should embrace hardships as expressions of God’s love. So we see a theme of enduring difficult times.
So a brief summary of the meaning for the biblical audience would be:
“The author of Hebrews uses the image of a long distance race to challenge his audience to persevere in their commitment to Christ in spite of opposition. Rather than drifting away from Christ and reverting to Judaism, they need to run the race with endurance. For inspiration and encouragement, they should consider the scores of faithful saints who have already endured in faith. They are urged especially to focus on Jesus himself, the ultimate example of perseverance under pressure, rather than on the immediate circumstance of difficulty.”
Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
First, let’s notice the similarities. We too find ourselves in a long-distance race struggling to endure. We have a wealth of faithful examples who have gone before, and we must look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
There are, however, some differences. We do not face the same level of persecution facing the original audience. We are not tempted to revert to Judaism in order to avoid persecution.
Step 3: What are the theological principles in this text?
1) The Christian life is like a difficult long-distance race, which requires both effort and endurance.
2) The saints who have gone before supply us with valuable examples of endurance. We should look to them for inspiration and encouragement.
3) To run the race successfully, we need to reject things in life that hinder our progress, and, most importantly, focus on Jesus and our relationship with Him.
Step 4: How should individual Christians today apply the principles in their lives?
Since the key elements in this case are more general, it will be easier to find a parallel situation. For instance, any Christian who is tempted to give up because of the difficulty of staying faithful to Christ will need to be reminded that the race demands effort and endurance.
Another realization we take from this passage that must be applied is that life is not a sprint. God wants us to remain steadfast under pressure and to stay the course. To run successfully means making the right choices today and the next day and the next week, month, year, and so on. God calls us to hang in there over the long haul. Running with endurance means staying on our feet and fixing our gaze on Christ even if we feel exhausted and depleted and stressed to the breaking point. The race is not a sprint, but a marathon. To endure is to win.