“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus” Hebrews 12:1–2

My experience as a grade school sprinter was rather short-lived. I was much more suited for long distance endurance runs. What I remember about running heats was the individuality of it all. You had your assigned heat and starting block. Boredom reigned while you stretched and waited. You searched the stand for your parents’ faces among the crowd of onlookers. You hope your mom and dad can see you well enough to watch your whole race. I remember the feel of the sweat suit, the smell of the grass, the laced up spikes, and the nervousness that is supposed to give you a little edge in the competition.

All of a sudden the moment of your heat arrives and you strip off the sweats and listen to a few last words of encouragement from your coach. Before you know it, you walk over to take your place among the other runners. You are getting your feet positioned in the starting block, your spikes dig in, and your hands make contact with the warm cinders of the track. The referee raises the starting gun and begins the pre-race commands: Get ready, Get set. Go!

Our text essentially captures the same moment on the spiritual level. The big difference is the fact that the spiritual race you run is an endurance race, not a sprint, and it is one in view of the entire length of bleachers and the announcer’s booth. Chapter 11 describes a crowd of witnesses who bore living testimony of the sufficiency of Christ and the strength gained through living faith. They chose, obeyed, suffered, and overcame. They each have, at one time or other, taken their place on the starting block and have begun the long run and crossed the finish line. They are an enormous crowd. They all know exactly what you face and what you will endure. You can just about hear them cheering you on all the way to the end!

They are a “cloud of witnesses” as if the whole heavens were covered with them. The fact that the author calls them witnesses is indicative of not just their testimonies of Christian victories; it is the Greek word martureo which signifies they were committed to the end and many laid down their lives as martyrs. Christian faith is that sufficient. The promises of God will never let you down. He promises an adequate supply of stamina even in the most arduous season of endurance. These witnesses are testimony to the fact that God carried them through as they obeyed Him and that He will do the same for you.

Of course, the idea of witnesses encompasses a widening group when you consider the angels who intently observe your race of life (1 Peter 1:12). Witnesses may also expand in your thinking to include your fellow contestants, believers who are running their hearts out in the race of life and believers who are getting ready to join you at the starting block. Then there are the spectators who witness your race; the enemy of your soul and his minions, none of whom wish you well. They hector you in the blocks, mock your efforts and laugh at your defeats. The last group of witnesses are your mission field, all those who know you but do not know your Lord Jesus Christ. These spectators are the ones who need to see your performance in the race almost as much as your fellow saints who are runners along with you. Both groups need to see your faith, your resolve at the starting block, your plucky endurance to the end, your keeping eyes on the goal, and the moment you cross the finish line.

As a race is about to begin, the runners stretch and remove their sweats. Our text calls upon the spiritual runners to “lay aside every weight and sin which so easily ensnares us.” A runner may be filled with doubt, with pride, too much breakfast, or with just plain lethargy and laziness. These things serve as a snare, literally a surrounding encumbrance bound to trip the runner up. I liken the encumbrance to fumbling with a tug of war rope in front of you while you run, you are bound to take your fall as the trailing rope entwines your legs. In our spiritual life these are the things we argue with God about, as in “I don’t see anything wrong with that, why do I need to let that go and leave it behind?” Just as surely as the old fashion sweat suit would be an impediment, so are the things we cherish that have nothing to do with the race God has set before us.

It is not just “weights,” it is “sin” that gets in the way of enduring and prevailing. The sin referred to in the text is lack of faith. The first century recipients of Hebrews needed to join the saints at the starting block. You are called knowingly, purposely, and mindfully to take our place among the saints and run with the great hope of echoing Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:7, I have finished my course and I have kept the faith. Trust and obey.