[K:NWTS 1/1 (May 1986) 4-15]

A Sermon on Hebrews 12:1-3

Geerhardus Vos

These verses stand at the beginning of one of the five hortatory sections which are so characteristic of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is perhaps no other book in the New Testament in which the two elements of theological exposition and practical application are so clearly distinguishable and yet so organically united as in this epistle. The writer never makes exhortation a substitute for doctrine. His practical counsels are always based on a carefully managed presentation of the truth addressed to the intellect of his readers. It must have been in many respects an extremely critical situation in which he found them and from which he endeavored to rescue them; but nevertheless he attacks it in his thoroughly objective, calm, reasonable and confident manner. He relies upon the inherent power of the truth to commend itself and work its way as applied by the Spirit of God. He appreciates the mighty weapon which a full command of the truth puts into the hand of the preacher. He knows that the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing till it divides the soul and the spirit both in their joints and in their marrow (i.e., till it reaches the very skeleton and what is within the skeleton of the innermost consciousness of man and becomes the judge of the thoughts and intents of his heart). And you will observe that where he deplores the general backwardness of the Hebrew Christians, he has just as much in mind their failure to make progress in the doctrinal apprehension of Christianity as the lack of development in the more practical province of their religious life. His complaint is distinctively the teacher's complaint as you can best see from the fifth chapter. There he charges his readers with having become dull of hearing and declares them to be in need again that someone should teach them the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God and characterizes them as babes without experience in the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:12,13).

It is quite in keeping with all this that in the passage before us also he gives such a turn to his exhortation as to gather up in it the gist of the whole preceding chapter in which the nature and possibility of a life of faith had been exemplified from the sacred history of the Old Covenant. The personal appeal he makes to his readers is contained in the words: "Let us run with patience the race set before us." The figure is a familiar one quite common especially in the epistles of Paul and one which would easily suggest itself to a writer who came at all in contact with the pagan athletic life of the times. And the figure was strikingly apposite to the religious situation of that time. In these early days, Christianity bore a most strenuous character; internal and external causes combined to impose upon its adherents the straining of every nerve in order to maintain their faith. To be an active, aggressive believer was more than ever essential because not to be so exposed [one] more than ever to the danger of ceasing to be a Christian at all. Still there were probably special reasons why the representation of Christianity as a race to be run was extremely appropriate under the conditions of the readers to which the writer of the epistle addressed himself. The readers seem to have been lacking in the energy of faith. Instead of having their faces resolutely set forward towards the future, they were given to looking backward at the antiquated forms of a ceremonial religious system for the mistaken love of which they overlooked the far greater privileges and treasures to which Christianity had given them access. Repristination may sometimes be necessary, but even at its best, even when it is repristination of that which is good and of permanent value, it is little conducive towards a healthy spiritual growth and development, least of all so when it aims at the revival of something that has served its purpose and is nigh unto vanishing.

In the second place, these Hebrew Christians seem to have been abnormally restive under the certain trials and afflictions and persecutions that had befallen them. In the midst of these, they had failed to develop that Christian fortitude and heroism which on the whole were so characteristic of the early church in the subapostolic period. For these two reasons, it was peculiarly appropriate that the author clothe his exhortation to them in the athletic figure of the racecourse which contains the central thought of the passage. The way in which he introduces the figure and the motives which he advances for its enforcement enable us to trace to some extent the situation which it was intended to meet. Let us for a few moments look at the figure and what its implications are.

Old Testament Saints

In the first place, the writer exhorts his readers to the exercise of an energetic Christian faith by pointing them to the example of the Old Testament saints which he had depicted for them in the preceding chapter: "Having therefore so great a cloud of witnesses lying around us, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race set before us." We shall get somewhat closer to the author's meaning by observing the intimate connection in which these words stand with the two last verses of the 11th chapter. The thought that the Old Testament saints are witnesses may have been suggested by what is said about them in the 39th verse: "And all these, having had witness borne to them." But the idea expressed is a different one since there they are the objects of the witness borne by God or men to the nobility of their character, while here they appear as witnesses themselves. The only point doubtful is whether they are called witnesses in the same sense that they speak to us through the historic testimony of their heroic faith recorded in Scripture; or whether we must bring the idea into closer connection with the figure of the race so as to conceive of them as actually witnessing, surveying us, spectators of the struggle in which we are engaged. Something may be said in favor of either view: the preceding chapter as a whole perhaps favors the former interpretation that they bear witness to us as figures in history. But over against this, we must place not merely the admirable manner in which the other interpretation fits into the figure, but also the fact that they are called "a cloud of witnesses," "encompassing" us (which expression naturally suggests the great crowd of spectators seated or standing around the arena). It does not necessarily follow, if we adopt this latter view, that the writer means to represent the saints in heaven as "conversant with our life here and fascinated by the interest of it." Evidently, the emphasis does not rest on what we are for the departed saints, but on what they ought to be for us. The writer intimates as much as this by saying that we have this cloud of witnesses. The whole conception is figurative and ideal and the only question that can be raised is whether the author wants us to imagine the Old Testament heroes of faith as speaking to us from out of their own historic situation or as gathered figuratively and ideally around us. Looked at closely, it will be seen that the latter interpretation to a certain extent includes the other as the more comprehensive of the two. For if the Old Testament saints appear as encompassing us, the effect which their ideal presence should produce upon us must be largely due to the fact that they themselves were at one time runners in the same race. They influence us not merely through the thought that they once passed through the experience we now have. All the memories of what they endured and accomplished crowd in upon us when we imagine them as holding us in survey.

There is certainly an important lesson embodied in this noble figure for us as well as for the first readers of the epistle. I do not know whether we always make enough of this retrospective communion of the saintsof this spiritual continuity with the church of the past. In natural relations, we are not slow to take pride in our descent from such as have left an honorable record behind them in the annals of history and we all feel more or less the obligations which such a connection imposes upon us. Why should it be different in the religious sphere? In the exercise of faith as well as in that of the natural virtues, we ought to feel the force of the principle noblesse oblige. Sometimes we are altogether too much concerned with what the present world will say about uswhether it will regard us as progressive and enlightened and liberal; while we but too seldom consider what would be the historic judgment passed upon us by the church of the former ages if its great figures could gather around us and review the part we take in the making of the history of the presentwhether they would be shamed or gladdened by our doings. Let us then sometimes at least endeavor to view our condition and performance in this light. Let us ask ourselves whether we can without shame and self-reproach allow the soundness of our faith, the purity of our life, the consecration of our service to fall below the attainments of any earlier generation in the church of God. And on the other hand, though the world may look down upon us as reactionaries and antiquated people, if we can conscientiously say that we have remained faithful to the principles which God himself stamped with his historic approval in the past, let us derive comfort from the thought that we walk not alone, but are compassed about on every side by an innumerable host of friends who will honor us as God has honored them.

The Race as Prospective

The next important point of comparison when the author represents the Christian life as a race to be run lies in this: its whole character ought to be prospective; everything in it ought to be determined by the thought of the future. It is a race to which the inheritance of the final kingdom of God forms the goal. Just as one who is in the racecourse running for a prize makes the attainment of this end his supremehis only concernso the true believer obeys but the fundamental law of his Christian calling when he concentrates his mind and energy upon the future. This is the reason why the author in the 40th verse of the 11th chapter emphasizes that the fathers received not the promise. For although this on the one hand implies that we have an advantage over them inasmuch as we have at least a partial possession of the promise already in this life, whence it is added that God had provided something better concerning us; yet on the other hand it is obviously the writer's intention to remind the readers of the resemblance which their life ought to bear in this respect to that of the Old Testament saints. They were not to be made perfect without us. We had first to join them in their looking forward to, in their reaching out after the world to come before this world could actually appear. We and they form one great assembly of believers, animated by the same thought, inspired by the same vision of the ideal lifethe ideal kingdom. From this point of view the survey of Old Testament history which the author had made was peculiarly adapted to put the Hebrew Christians in the frame of mind required in those who are to run a spiritual race. The Old Testament was preeminently a prospective period, a period of anticipation, a period in which the believer was reminded at every step of something higher and better yet to appear. Enoch and Moses and Abraham and all the prophets bore witness by their whole manner of life that they appreciated this, that the present was to them something provisional.

Now just as it would have been a grave defect in them if they had lost sight of this fact and had been reconciled to these Old Testament conditions as final and adequate (sufficient), just as truly it will have to be regarded as a serious spiritual fault in the New Testament believer if he ceases to give the future world that dominating influence over his entire life and thought which, as the goal of his Christian calling, it can properly claim. Whatever the difference in other respects, we are one with the whole church of God of every age from the beginning of the history of redemption until now in this fundamental traitthat we seek the absolute, the final, the perfect. Hence the race is represented as being in reality a race of faith in which the energetic exercise of faith corresponds to the running, and that not so much faith in its general sense, but specifically faith in its eschatological bearingsthat faith which puts one in vital contact with and impels one irresistibly forward towards the unseen realities of the heavenly world. And in a negative form the same thought is expressed by what the author adds concerning the laying aside of every weight and the sin which does so easily beset the Christian. Of course in its former half this representation is again borrowed from the racecourse. As a runner would lay aside every encumbrance of dress as well as every other burden that might endanger his success in the race, so the believer who has his face set towards the future, heavenly life must divest himself of every such concern with the present world as would retard his steady progress towards the higher kingdom.

Perhaps the author had specifically in mind the entanglement of the Hebrew Christians in the ceremonial forms of the Old Testament religion and regarded these as a weight dragging them down, so that they could not rise to a truly spiritual apprehension and appreciation of the heavenly realities in which Christ ministers at the right hand of God. But whether this be so or not, at any rate the words admit of a more general application in which they have their significance for every believer. We may say that the things here called "weights" embrace everything that might in any sense turn away the heart from the pursuit of heaven even though these things might in the abstract be unobjectionable or even comely. It should be remarked, however, that properly speaking, not the innocent associations or engagements with the earthly life as such constitute the weight, for that would be equivalent to saying that we must adopt the principle of monasticism. Not that the believer should be indifferent to the natural environment in which the providence of God has placed him; but he should not have his portion in the present life in the same sense as the children of the world have it. He must gravitate towards the future life and must make every contact into which he comes with earthly concerns subordinated and subservient to this. Instead of weights these affairs must become wings speeding him onward and upward in his flight towards God. If he fails to do this, he becomes unfaithful to the claim which the spiritual world has upon him; a fornicator, as the author drastically expresses it, resembling Esau who for one mess of pottage sold his own birthright.

Laying Aside Sin

But while such weights must be laid aside because they hinder the believer in running well and involve a temptation to falling, even more resolute should the Christian's attitude be towards sin as such. You will observe how the author singles this out from the general category of weights, perhaps distinguishes it as a separate category from the latter: "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us." Sin requires special, radical treatment; it must, as he says immediately afterwards, be resisted unto blood. Here again the author may have had in mind that specific sin which the Hebrew Christians were in eminent danger of committing, if some of them had not committed it already, i.e., the sin of open unbelief in the Gospel and the God of the Gospels as a consequent relapse into Judaism or into something worse than Judaisma state of rebellion against God as such. In several passages of the epistle at least the word sin occurs with this specific connotation. Nevertheless here also the words admit of a more general exegesis. What the author says of sin is true generically of every form of sin, viz., that it must be laid aside, if the believer is to run his race with alacrity and success. Sin from the nature of the case interposes a barrier between us and the goal of our Christian striving. It not merely prevents further progress, but it throws him who commits it back to a position less advanced than he had reached before. It obscures the vision of the heavenly state; it weakens the desire from its enjoyment; it breaks the energy of the will in pursuing it. This is especially clear if we place ourselves upon the standpoint from which the author is accustomed to view sin, as an impediment in our approach to God, for God is the center of attraction in the kingdom of glory; so that to lose touch with God inevitably means to stop in the midst of the race towards heaven.

Moreover sin finds such ample opportunities for barring our way of access to God and the higher world. For this reason the author characterizes it as the sin "that doth easily beset us," a statement not intended to refer to any particular form of sin, as we might be led to think from the analogy of our phrase "a besetting sin," but applying to sin generically. It is for sin an easy thing to approach us; we always carry it with us; it runs, as it were, the race with us; it is at the same time the most dangerous and the most ubiquitous of our spiritual foes. Thus the characterization of sin as that which easily besets us is meant to suggest to the readers the most powerful motive for laying it aside, for breaking with it utterly, while they bend all their energies to the race of sanctification. This is an enemy with whom no compromise should be made. Every sin which we allow to stay with us may at any moment become an occasion of falling to us. What is demanded therefore is a positive and aggressive attitude towards sin. We must not merely resist it, but lay it asidein dependence upon the grace of God, cut ourselves loose from it. Sanctification ought to be to every child of God not a desultory matter, but an intelligent systematic pursuit.

Running with Patience

The next point upon which the passage throws emphasis is that the Christian race must be run with patience. Patience in this connection means more than perseverance, persistence; it describes the endurance of what is hard and painful. As in the figure, the striving after the prize exposes to hardship; and as in order to success, this hardship must be met with such a spirit of fortitude that it shall not only not impede the runner but positively assist him in reaching the goal, so in the Christian pursuit of the kingdom of God, suffering and trials are the inevitable concomitants; and so far from hindering him in his progress must become the very means of helping him onward through the development in him of patience. We may say that the cultivation of this virtue forms an integral part of the running of the race itself. The examples given in the 11th chapter show that heroic endurance appeared to the writer as one of the aspects of faith; that therefore it must be in his view something which speeds the believer onward towards the goal. The conceptions of faith as spiritual vision of the eternal world, and of faith as the source of Christian fortitude and of faith as the principle of Christian obedience are closely associated in the epistle.

The manner in which patience becomes subservient to the attainment of the prize can be variously conceived of. In the case of Jesus, of whom the author speaks in the immediately following statement, there was a direct meritorious connection. What he endured in the race of his earthly life became the legal ground on which God based the bestowal upon him of all the glory and blessedness of his exalted state. The joy he received was the natural reward for the cross endured and the shame despised. It is not possible, of course, and the author does not mean to transfer this connection in the same sense to the case of the believer. No amount of patience displayed by us in our earthly trials and afflictions can give us the least semblance of a claim upon the glory that awaits us at the end. And yet the author clearly so represents it that there is if not a meritorious, yet a reasonable, logical nexus between the one and the other. As a broad supposition this view underlies everything said in the preceding chapter about the heroic conduct in suffering of the Old Testament saints. The principle on which these were crowned was a principle of free grace, but on that account it was not arbitrarily applied.

The reason will appear if we remember that in the first place these trials are endured for the sake of and in obedience to God; and in the second place that the patience with which they are endured is the direct result of the believer's vital connection with the heavenly world in which the prize awaits him. To express the first thought, the author says that the race we run is a race set before us, viz., by God. Everything that meets us in it is an object of God's appointment. In obedience to him we ought to endure it without murmuring, especially if, as is frequently the case (as was probably the case with the Hebrews) it is the outcome of our identification with the cause of God; if we suffer, as Moses did, the reproach of Christ. What is more natural than that God should in his grace reward those who thus suffer for him with the heavenly life; so that patience and glory appear in the relation to one another of the race to the crown? God cannot but honor this loyalty to himself evinced in suffering; of such patient runners he is not ashamed to be called their God and he has prepared for them a city.

And in the second place the Christian virtue of patience is something that can spring only from true vital connection with the spiritual heavenly world. It is something entirely different from stoical apathy or resignation. If the Christian patiently endures, it is because he sees the invisible; because there is a counter-power, a counter-principle at work in his life which more than offsets by the joy it creates, the pain of tribulation. This is naught else but the power of the spiritual, heavenly world itself to which through faith he has access. Although in one sense the inheritance of this world lies yet in the future, yet in another sense it has already begun to be in principle realized and become ours in actual possession. The two spheres of the earthly and the heavenly life do not lie one above the other without touching at any point; heaven with its gifts and powers and joys descends into our earthly experience like the headlands of a great and marvelous continent projecting into the ocean.

Now it is the secret enjoyment of a real communion with this celestial sphere that is the source from which all Christian patience is fed, without which it could not exist itself for a moment. In point of fact, brethren, patiencenegative as the conception may superficially appear to usis in its Christian sense a most positive thing; at least it is the manifestation of a most positive thing, the manifestation of the supernatural energy that works in faith itself. The heavenly world is to the believer what the earth was to the giant in ancient mythology; so long as he remains in contact with it, an unintermittent stream of new spiritual power flows into his frame. Is it strange that patience thus engendered should become, under God's appointment, the great prerequisite and in a certain sense the measure of reward at the end of the race? In the example of Christ which the author holds up before his readers, we can most clearly observe the manner of working of the principle in question because he was the Leader and Perfector of faith, the ideal believer, and therefore the ideal pattern of patience. What else enabled him to endure the cross and despise the shame, but that in faith undimmed he had his eye constantly fixed upon the joy that was set before him and in uninterrupted intercourse with the world of heaven received daily strength sufficient for the running of his race? The thought is the same as that expressed in the beautiful catena of Paul in Romans 5 with which I will conclude my remarks: "We rejoice in tribulation, knowing that tribulation worketh patience and patience probation, and probation hope, and hope maketh not ashamed, because (even in this present life already) the love of God (as the principle and earnest of eternal blessedness) is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit given unto us" (Rom. 5:3-5).

Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, April 6, 1902.

(The Vos sermon is transcribed from his personal sermon notebook deposited in the Heritage Hall Archive of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan and is printed here with their kind permission. The editor has made minor changes in punctuation and added the subheadings.)