Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.
4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
5 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.
12 Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees;
13 And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.
14 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:
15 Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;
16 Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.
17 For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
18 For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest,
19 And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more:
20 (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart:
21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:)
22 But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
25 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven:
26 Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.
27 And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
28 Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear:
29 For our God is a consuming fire.
The previous section ended the story of the heroes of faith by stating that God had held back their promised blessing because he wanted them to share the better blessing made available in Christ. Now he turns to urging his audience to show commitment in their own journey and not to give up when the going is hard. He gives two reasons for not giving up:
1.the example of Jesus; 2. Harsh disciplines are God’s fatherly way of training people.
Behind both of these lies the image of an athlete running and perhaps training for, a race. It seems to me that details of the language suggest that the author had the classic Olympic foot race in mind, in which the race track was one stadion, that is, around 200 meters. The “cloud of witnesses (spectators?), the need to lay aside encumbrances (the athletes ran naked) the patience required (Greek hupomene = steady effort), all fit the basic metaphor.
I have not found a translation or commentary which asks if the metaphor is continued in the next verse – “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” If faith is compared to a race how can we see Jesus as its author (originator, starter) and finisher (perfecter, completer)? There are two possibilities:
- The officials who started Olympic races and stood at the finish line to judge the winners were called Hellanodike and were also the organisers of the Games. If they were in the author’s mind, theirs might be a good fit for the role of Jesus in the faith of believers….. except that he continues “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross..” which leaves the Hellanodike behind.
- The great champion runners, previous winners, would line up alongside newcomers in a race and finish well before them due to their harsh training regimes.
As the second of these fits better the author’s view of Jesus sharing our human journey, I think it at least shapes the wording of verse 2, and to some extent verse 3: “lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.”
Verse 4 offers a comparison with Jesus’ suffering, who has “resisted (sin) unto blood.” Indeed he is also the model for the theme of God’s treatment of his children which follows. The author has already written “Son though he was, he learned obedience through suffering.”
Verses 5-12, which set out a picture of God’s fatherly discipline, return again to the metaphor of the athlete, although it is not made explicit. The children of God benefit from discipline as athletes do. The KJV uses the word “chasten” to translate the Greek “paideia” which already includes the etymological reference to a child (Greek: pais). In modern English, “train” or “discipline” would be better. The quotation from Proverbs 3 is pretty robust, especially the verb to “scourge” (Greek: mastigoo) and allows the author to suggest that even the harshest trials of life are part of God’s fatherly training.
My conviction that the athlete metaphor is still in the author’s mind is bolstered by his use of the Greek word “gegumnasmenois” (gym!) = exercised, in verse 11. Both children and athletes who benefit from accepting discipline are therefore a rebuke to believers who may be whingeing about their hard times. They are cautioned to “stand up straight” as I often was when a child. The idea that God uses hardship to toughen his children is found throughout the bible and indeed in other ancient literature. It is by no means popular in the churches of the rich world today but may be all the better for that.
The concluding section counsels the audience to peacefulness, purity, mutual concern, chastity and reverence using Esau as the bad example of someone who cared little for the spiritual blessing of his birthright. The KJV mistranslates the Greek metanoia which in this context probably means “he could find no place to turn it (his loss) around.”
The author then launches into another of his riffs, this time about the situation of human beings before God: the experience of Moses and the people gathered at Sinai was terrifying enough, but believers should know that they stand before the imminent city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem of which the earthly city is a mere shadow, myriads of angels “in festive array” (if we put the KJV general assembly, Greek panegurei along with the angels rather than the firstborn), and the church or “assembly of the firstborn.” This phrase probably designates the believers who have already died and are alive with God. The “just men made perfect” however, may include non-believers as well as believers. Above all, the believers stand before Jesus who mediates God’s new covenant with them, in which he is their perpetual high priest, who has once and for all offered himself to God. His blood speaks more powerfully than the blood of Abel which cried out to God from the earth.
In all of this the author shows his flexible, expert knowledge of scripture and his genius for turning its language to new uses which express his unique vision of what it means to believe in Jesus.
He ends by turning an old prophecy of God shaking earth and heaven into a hopeful word about the kingdom which will remain unshaken when everything else has gone. His final counsel is reverence (fear), for God is not cuddly.
- All images from Greek vases