To teach and encourage his readers, the inspired author refers to a “great cloud of witnesses” – the “hall of faith” introduced in Hebrews chapter 11 – then turns to the metaphor of a race.
A cloud of witnesses, observation.
The great cloud of witnesses refers back to Old Testament faithful, who “by faith” obtained a good report,[i] offered a more excellent sacrifice, prepared an ark, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, received the spies with peace, and so much more – so much that the time would fail to tell of them all. These heroes of faith are witnesses – but in what sense? Considering the race metaphor, some have considered them as witnesses in the sense of spectators who witness the race. Better, in the entire context, is to understand the previous persons introduced in Hebrews 11 as witnesses who testify or bear witness of faith to succeeding generations – even the present community of faith to whom the exhortation is given. Those who walked in and lived by faith in the past offer encouragement to those who must do so in the present. There is both preparation and design for the race and the actual running of the race.
Let us lay aside, preparation.
The runner in the Christian race must lay aside the encumbrances that hinder the goal. let us lay aside (1) every weight, and (2) the sin which doth so easily beset us. Every weight means anything, any weight, any burden – all things unnecessary that hinder us in running the Christian race and obtaining the prize. Some foods that are tempting or tasty might not be appropriate for the runner; some clothes that are weighty or restrictive might not be suitable.[ii] Some things that are lawful for the race may not be expedient for the running (Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12). These things should be laid aside, left alone for fulfilling one’s purpose in life. The first consideration does not have to be inherently sinful. The second – the sin which doth so easily beset us – obviously is. The “sin” here is singular, rather than plural “sins.” Perhaps the author has in mind for each person some particular sin that person is most prone to, the one sin that consistently hinders above all others. In light of the emphasis on faith prior to this in chapter 11, the sin of unbelief may be intended, it being opposite of the walk of faith. The just shall – yea, must – live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). Unbelief kicks our running feet from beneath us. Unbelief hobbles our effectiveness. (Compare Matthew 13:58; Matthew 17:20; Mark 9:24; Mark 16:14.)
Let us run, completion.
All preparation is only preparation; the race still must be run. Let us run (1) with patience, (2) the race that is set before us, while (3) looking unto Jesus. “With patience” suggests endurance, and that the race is not a sprint but rather a long distance run. Patience is coupled with faith in Hebrews 6:12 and James 1:3. The trials, the tribulations, the training, work patience in us (Romans 5:2-4) preparing us for the race of life. We run the race that is set before us.[iii] God designs the race we individually will run, and designs each of us individually for the race will run. At age seventeen Jacob’s son Joseph could not have imagined how God would fulfill the design of Joseph’s race of life (Genesis 37:1-11), but in the end he could look back over it all and testify gloriously, “God meant it for good!” (See Genesis 50:20.) We run with a view, a goal – looking unto Jesus. He is the author and finisher of our faith (which is the gift of God, Ephesians 2:8). God speaks to us by his Old Testament witnesses to motivate and encourage us, but in these last days he has spoken unto us by the supreme example, his Son (1 Peter 2:21). Fix your eyes on Jesus and run with patience the race that he designed, with him in view.
[i] F. F. Bruce: “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement.” The verb μαρτυρέω in Hebrews 11:2, 39 – “obtained a good report” – relates to the noun μαρτυς – “witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1. God, through his inspired writer, witnesses to them – gives them a good report – and they in turn witness or give a good report to those who follow after.
[ii] Our identity defines our activity. Our activity determines our attire.
[iii] Matthew Henry: “This race is set before them; it is marked out unto them, both by the word of God and the examples of the faithful servants of God, that cloud of witnesses with which they are compassed about. It is set out by proper limits and directions; the mark they run to, and the prize they run for, are set before them.” (Cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24; Psalm 19:5.)