This verse is power-packed with so much for encouragement in the Christian life.

I want to go through it and make a few interesting points.

First, I had always considered the “great cloud of witnesses” to mean that the saints of the past were surrounding us and watching us as we “run the race”. However, the word “witnesses”, doesn’t indicate that the people are “watchers” of our current Christian walk. But rather, “witnesses” in this context takes on the meaning of them being faithful witnesses for God. In a very literal sense, the Greek word “martus” is used, which is where we get our English word “martyr”.

If you can, imagine us walking through a great hall of statues of the giants of the faith. The ones mentioned in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith” are: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. Being in this imagined “hall of statues”, would equate being “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”. Chapter 12, Verse 1 is a continuation of Chapter 11. The cloud of witnesses are the ones who stood in faith even though they never saw the promise fulfilled. We can also consider the New Testament martyrs, which would be all the disciples except for John. Anyone who has gone before us and proved faithful are a part of the “cloud of witnesses” that we can look to for inspiration, to spur us on in the race we are running. I don’t know about you, but it gives me encouragement to think of all those who have remained faithful, enduring suffering and pain.

Next, verse 1 says we are to lay aside every “encumbrance“. In this particular instance, Thr Hebrews author is speaking about the Jews holding onto the law, which was a burden they were no longer expected to carry. However, today, what could a burden be that we are carrying in our race that is hindering our progress? In John Bunyan’s classic book “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the main character, Christian, is weighed down by a burden. His “encumbrance” is the weight of his own sin, guilt, and the dread of God’s condemnation. Even after Christ saves Christian, he continues to bear this burden unnecessarily. It is only when he accepts the fact that he is no longer responsible for this load he is carrying, that he finally relinquishes it at the foot of the cross.
Are we hanging onto the burden of past sins that have already been forgiven? Or is it a propensity for a sin that keeps “entangling” you? Could it be a burden of suffering that we are refusing to let Him carry? Paul says we are to lay these things aside. In other words, don’t keep hanging onto the things that are slowing us down and maybe causing us to stumble. We are called to FINISH the race we are running, as did the witnesses who went before us.

Finally, verse 1 tells us to “run the with endurance the race that is set before us”.

God has plotted out a course for us to run. This isn’t a simple run around a smooth track with a winner’s ribbon awaiting us around a few laps. This is a life-long, cross-country, grueling trek. We can expect jagged rocks, muddy bogs, and steep terrain. The word used here for “race”, is the Greek word “Agon”, which is where we derive our English word “agony”. Do you think if the writer of Hebrews had thought this was going to be an easy road he would have used a word that’s very description implies difficulty, struggle, and hardship? What do you think of when you hear the word “agony”? I remember when I was a girl, on Saturdays my dad would watch ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”. If you remember this sports program, you are probably very familiar with what happens in the show’s intro, showing the “thrill of victory….and the agony of defeat”. For those not familiar, here is how it started out each week:

The image I see in my mind for “agony” is always of the skier falling in that horrifying crash.

Not only will we experience agony in our race, we must ENDURE it, meaning to keep moving forward with “steady determination, regardless of the temptation to slow down or give up.” ( John MacArthur Commentary )

The race set before you is different from the one God has charted out for me. But fellow runners, we will have much in common. We will all experience loss, suffering, injuries, and pain along the route. For us, there may not be the same depth of persecution as other runners may face. In fact, here in America, at least for now, we are not having to endure what some of our fellow believers are currently facing. Believers such as Chinese pastor Li Juncai, pictured here from “Voice of the Martyrs”:

Chinese pastor Li Juncai

His race is no doubt filled with pitfalls we may never experience. But it is his race to run. God has ordained it for him.

Each person’s race is his own. But we must endure it. Lay down any hindrance that may make us want to quit. We have a “cloud of witnesses” to look to for the strength to carry on. While we may experience the periodic “agony of defeat”, we can be assured that the “thrill of victory is just ahead at the finish line. Stay strong, fellow runner. Your prize is awaiting. I am just now reminded of an old Twila Paris song that still makes me cry to this day when I think about it, even more so now than when I listened to it as a teenager, because I have now experienced the bloodied knees of many of the difficulties of my plotted course. Praise God, Runner, when the race is won, you will run into His arms and receive the victor’s crown. And those who have gone before us will be there to greet us, congratulating us on a race well run!

Courier valiant, bearing the flame
Messenger noble, sent in His name
Faster and harder, run through the night
Desperate relay, carry the light, carry the light

Runner when the road is long
Feel like giving in, but you’re hanging on
Oh runner, when the race is won
You will run into His arms

Obstacle ancient, chilling the way
Enemy wakened, stoking the fray
Still be determined, fearless and true
Lift high the standard, carry it through, carry it through

Runner when the road is long
Feel like giving in, but you’re hanging on
Oh runner, when the race is won
You will run into His arms

Mindful of many waiting to run
Destined to finish, what you’ve begun
Millions before you cheering you on
Godspeed dear runner, carry it home, carry it home

Runner when the road is long
Feel like giving in, but you’re hanging on
Oh runner, when the race is won
You will run into His arms

Here is the lyric video of the Twila Paris song:

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