The Race of Faith
After wrapping up Chapter 11, Chapter 12 begins with comparing the life of faith to a race. For centuries, foot races have been a popular way for athletes to compete. Men and women compete in everything from 40 yard dashes to ultramarathons sometimes 100 or more miles in length. We understand that running takes commitment, discipline, and endurance. So here in these few verses we’ve read, we have the conclusion of God’s challenge to us of being faithful. Everything we have studied for the past 15 weeks on these Heroes of Faith was to bring us to this point. And so God makes one final impassioned plea to each of us: run the race of faith.
First of all, we are to run the race of faith because of the witnesses or those behind us. Hebrews 11:36 through Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that many have successful run before us. Throughout this series we’ve studied the lives of dozens of different men and women who have successfully run the race of faith. Beginning in verse four of chapter eleven, we saw how Abel chose by faith to worship God rightly. In verse five, by faith Enoch walked with God. In verse seven, Noah obeyed God and built an ark though it had never rained. By faith he obeyed simply because God had said it. In verses eight through ten Abraham demonstrated his faith by leaving his homeland with an expectation of a better place: heaven. Then Sarah saw God do the impossible in verse eleven by becoming a mother at 90 because she placed her faith in God. In verses seventeen through nineteen, Abraham continued his race of faith by willingly offering his only son Isaac, believing God would raise him from the dead. In verses twenty through twenty-two, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph remained faithful to the end of their lives because they never doubted God’s promises. The midwives and Moses’ parents demonstrated real faith in verse twenty-three by choosing to obey God rather than man. Moses ran the race of faith in verses twenty-four through twenty-seven by choosing God over this world. And then in verses twenty-eight through thrity, the Hebrew nation demonstrated saving faith by applying the blood of the lamb and when they were delivered through the Red Sea. Once again Israel demonstrated faith when they won the victory at Jericho. In verse thirty-one, Rahab the harlot discovered the grace of God that comes only through faith. And then in verse thirty-two through thirty-five, we saw several different men and women who all ran the race of faith and won the victory. Though we covered their lives only briefly they all had the same testimony: by faith they believed God is greater and so they ran the race of faith.
However, the writer of Hebrews doesn’t end the list of those who have been faithful there in verse thirty-five. Though he gives no names, verses thirty-five through forty let us know that many others have also successfully run the race of faith. Verse thirty-five says that some were tortured. In verse thirty-six some were cruelly mocked and beaten, while others were put in prison. In verse thirty-seven, some were stoned while others were literally cut in half. Still others were condemned to death by the sword, and yet these all remained faithful to the end. Verses thirty-seven through thirty-eight tell of others who escaped death, but were forced to wander as fugitives and vagabonds, suffering persecution wherever they went and yet they too continued to run the race of faith.
Fifteen weeks ago when we began this series we said that God’s purpose for giving us this list of Faith Heroes was to encourage us to also run the race of faith. Here in forty verses of Scripture we have definitive proof that anyone can run the race of faith. If sinners like Rahab and doubters like Sarah can successfully run the race of faith, then so can we. If someone like Jephthah who had an embarrassing past could enter the race of faith and run successfully, then any one of us can too. All these men and women are “witnesses,” Hebrews 12:1 calls them of the fact that the race of faith can be run by us too.
Additionally, God has some words of encouragement for us in verses thirty-eight through forty. God commends and rewards those who have faith. In verse thirty-eight, God has a wonderful commendation for those who endure the race of faith: the world is not worthy of them. Those who live by faith are of great worth and immeasurable value to God for “without faith it is impossible to please God.” God takes many faithful people home to heaven “early” in our eyes, but the reality is that this world was not worthy to have them any longer so God graduated them to heaven. The only life that is of any value here and in eternity is the life of faith. Faith adds value to our lives and everything we do. I think of Enoch who did not die, but one day as he walked by faith God said, “The world is no longer worthy of you; come on home,” and God took him to heaven.
Not only does God have a wonderful commendation for the faithful, but verse thirty-nine tells us that the faithful receive a good report. At the end of their lives God gave them His approval for running the race of faith. These that lived by faith and walked by faith and not by sight received an A+ from the Lord on their report card. God approved of their lives and their report card is found here in Hebrews 11, an A+ in faith.
The third motivation to run the race of faith is found in verse forty: those who come to God by faith go to heaven. Something far better than this life awaits those who put their faith in God – a home forever in God’s heaven. Heaven is a great motivation to put our faith in God for salvation, but it’s also a great motivation to keep running. How could all the faithful in these verses endure such trials and afflictions? Because heaven lay ahead. Paul said in 2 Cor. 4:17 that anything we face during this life is but a “light affliction” compared to the glory of heaven for all eternity. So let’s start running and keep running towards the our reward: heaven. So to encourage us to run the race of faith, God has told us of all those who came before and successfully ran the race of faith. God also tells us of His commendation and rewards if we will put our faith in Him.
However, we are presented with a second truth in Hebrews 12:1 - everyone must run their own race of faith. I used to enjoy running but today don’t run at all anymore. I could spend all day telling you how I used to run, how fast I used to run, how far I used to run or I’m thinking about running again, but since I don’t currently run, it would be dishonest to call myself a runner. I could subscribe to Runner’s World magazine or Marathon magazine and read all day about running, but unless I go run, I’ll never again be a runner. A runner by definition is someone who runs. I am personally benefited in no way by someone else’s running. If I’m going to be a runner and if I’m going to gain any of the benefits of running, I have to go run for myself. Those who have run the race of faith before us can encourage us but they can’t run for us. Notice the end of verse one says we must run the race that is set before us. The implication is that although they have run, we each have our own race to run. We can be encouraged by the witness of Noah, Abraham, and Moses but they can’t run my race of faith. The race is set before me and I must run by faith. And when it comes down to it, the running of others is no good to my race. Again, we can be encouraged by what faith has wrought in the lives of others but the fact of the matter is, their race does not progress or advance my race one bit. Faith has always been a personal matter. Every person must make their own faith decisions. Abraham ran a fantastic race of faith, but his son Isaac had to make his own choice to begin the race of faith. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Though Isaac ran his race well, his boys had to make their own decision whether to have faith or not. Jacob chose to run the race of faith; Esau chose not to. But Jacob was not counted faithful because Isaac his father was faithful. He had to make his own personal decision.
Many people falsely believe that because they were born to Christian parents or raised in church that they will go to heaven. But faith is not something passed on by birth or in one’s DNA. I praise God that I was raised by Christian parents, but at age 13, I realized that being raised in a Christian home wasn’t good enough. I had to make my own decision by faith. I had to call upon the name of the Lord to be saved. No one else could do it for me. If you’ve never personally placed your faith in Jesus for salvation, then you are not on your way to heaven; you have not even begun to run the race of faith. The race is before you, but you must by faith begin your own race.
Not only does personal faith begin your Christian race, it’s then also up to you how you well you run. Whether or not you receive the Lord’s commendation and approval is up to you. It’s up to you how close you want to be to God. Certainly there are many things in this world that try to distract us and attack our faith, but it’s always been that way. Many of those found in the Hall of Fame of Faith had faith in spite of difficulty and opposition. Noah lived in the wickedest generation this world has ever seen and yet he ran the race of faith successfully. And because he determined to walk by faith, nothing and no one could keep him from it. A decree from the king said it was illegal for Daniel to pray and the penalty for doing so was the lion’s den, and yet he still ran his race of faith. No one can prevent you from walking with the Lord, but yourself. My dad is a wonderful Christian pastor, but he can’t run my Christian race for me. The race is before you and I and it’s up to us whether we’re going to run it or not.
So with the encouraging testimony of those who have gone before, I pray you decide to run and that you want to run well and finish with God’s approval. So the question is, “How do I achieve this goal? How do I have successful faith like those in Faith’s Hall of Fame?” Well, God has not left us without instructions. Suppose you wanted to run a 5K race. Since that’s not something you just jump into, I suggest you get some instructions. As it turns out there are all kinds of “How to prepare for a 5K” training plans. They cover everything from how to increase speed; how to increase distance; what kind of diet to eat while training; how much rest to take. It’s all planned out. You just have to follow it and you’ll be able to run a 5k race. God also instructs us how to run our race of faith and do it well. According to verse one, God’s first instruction is to run lightly: it says “lay aside ever weight.” During training it’s not uncommon for runners to wear weights to build muscle, but I’ve never seen a runner enter the actual race with the weights still on. No, to run the race well, you have to lay aside any weights. Weights are things that are not necessarily bad but they can slow us down or throw us off balance. Runners use special outfits and lightweight shoes to reduce weight and minimize drag. They don’t want anything that would interfere with their ability to run their best. There are so many things in this world that aren’t necessarily bad; things like work, family, finances, hobbies – they aren’t sinful things, but they can get us out of balance; they can weigh us down. Some things need to be laid aside if we are to run well. Moses is an excellent example of this. There in Egypt he had riches and honor as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but he realized he had a race of faith to run and the things of this world were weighing him down. So he laid them aside.
It also takes discipline to run the race of faith. Verse one also says that we are to lay aside sin. We could compare sin to things that tempt a runner to break his strict diet and training regimen. I used to drink a lot of soda, but when I got into running, I stopped drinking soda all together. Why? Because soda was bad for me and would keep me from running well. The Christian life is not about keeping a list of rules. It’s about becoming more like Jesus. The race of faith is to be one of discipline and self-denial. If we are going to run the race of faith there are sins that need to be purged from our lives. This verse says that sin “besets” us. The word “beset” means to stop one’s progress or to thwart one’s attempts. At my very best, I used to be able to run an 8 minute mile, but that was only possible because I disciplined myself to cut out some bad things in my diet. You may truly desire to live a life of faith and run the race of faith, but if you will not lay aside sin, sin will thwart your attempts and stop your progress. The race of faith takes discipline – laying aside sinful habits.
Thirdly, running the race of faith takes endurance. We are told to “run with patience.” If you’ve ever read the book Pilgrim’s Progress, you might remember that when Christian leaves the City of Destruction a friend went with him. But soon his friend finds out that the road to the Celestial City is a long journey with many difficulties along the way. It wasn’t long before Christian’s friend turned back. If we are going to run well, we need to determine to be in this for the long haul. Heaven is a long journey down the road. There will be some hardships over the years, but the approval and commendation of the Lord is worth the difficulty, so we must endure and continue to be faithful.
The last and most important part of the instructions for running the race of faith is having the right focus. Verse two tells us that our focus is to be on Jesus. Race horses often have blinders on their eyes when they run to keep them from looking from side to side and becoming distracted or startled by things around them. In Matthew 14 when Peter got out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus, at first everything was going just great – as long as Peter kept his eyes on the Lord. But Matthew 14:30 says that “he saw the wind boisterous.” He took his eyes off of Jesus; he began to fear, and he started to sink. Once again, to reference Pilgrim’s Progress. A little later down the road, Christian saw a beautiful field and decided to get off the path and enjoy its beauty. This proved nearly fatal for him when a giant captured him and put him in a dungeon. Christian’s mistake? Getting his eyes off the goal and veering of the path. We must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus if we are to run the race well and finish with God’s commendation. Many Christians have begun the race of faith, but after a time have taken their eyes off of Jesus. They get their eyes on the world; on pleasure; on a religion; on all kinds of things, but off of Jesus. Our focus can turn inward and we can begin to become prideful and self-sufficient. How many are the difficulties we might avoid or pass smoothly through if our gaze were firmly fixed on Christ! If we forget all other instructions, remember this one: look to Jesus! He was the One we looked to for salvation and we must continue to look to Him if we will run our race of faith.
It’s been a great encouragement to study these past 15 weeks the lives of these men and women who did it. They put their faith in God and fixed their gaze upon Christ and ran the race of faith. In heaven they heard their Lord say, “Well done,” and the world was not worthy of them. They ran well. But now it’s our turn. We must run our race. It can be done because others have proven it possible and God has instructed us how to also run well. But we must each make our decision. Will you run the race of faith for yourself? If you’ve never put your faith in Jesus for salvation, that is your most pressing need today. Heaven will not be your home when you die if you’ve never placed your faith in Jesus. If you would like to know for sure that you’ll go to heaven when you die, we invite you to come when the music begins to play. Christian, how’s your race? Do you have some things weighing you down that need to be laid aside? They may not be bad things, but they have your life out of balance and you’re not running well. Perhaps there’s some sin that needs to be set aside. Sin will halt the forward progress of your Christian life and displeases the Lord. To run well, you must place sin aside. And let’s look to Jesus. Only with our eyes fixed firmly on Him can we run this race well. Won’t you look to Jesus today?