For most of my adult like I ran for exercise, although I was never very fast. When we lived in Tulsa back in the 1990’s (when I was in my 30’s) I was probably in the best shape of my life and I’d still never broken a 6:00 mile. I had hovered just above it several times; I just wasn’t quite able to break six minutes. One weekend our running club was participating in a road race in Tulsa called The Cherry Street Mile, which had the advantage of a long downhill stretch to the finish line, so I was hoping to break 6:00 and set a new personal record. As we made our way towards the finish line, I could see the clock up ahead at the finish line was still in the 5:00’s, and I didn’t have much farther to go. I looked over at the crowd of people who lined the last few hundred yards to the finish line and I saw an older gentleman who was part of our club, but who wasn’t running that day. I looked up at the clock, then I looked over at him, and I raised my arms and hollered triumphantly: “I’m gonna break 6 minutes!” He pointed ahead and shouted back: “Keep your eyes on the finish line!” I did finish with a 5:45 mile, a new personal record, and barring a miracle in my old age, that will end up being the fastest mile I ever ran.
The author of Hebrews 12 is doing for us as Christians today, what that older gentleman did for me at the Cherry Street Mile that day. Only he is encouraging us to run the CHRISTIAN race. Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were tempted to ditch their faith in Jesus due to persecution, and return to Judaism. So throughout this book, as we saw last Sunday, the author proclaims how Jesus is better Judaism, better than the Law, better than the Old Testament priests, and better than the angels some of them were worshiping. Hebrews 11 shows us “The Hall of Faith”: how Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and many others, endured sufferings, and overcome obstacles, and ran the race of faith that was set before them. Each of us has obstacles that we have to face in our lives, too. But these verses remind us that we are not the first to run the Christian race; others have gone before us, and like that gentleman I looked to that day at the Cherry Street Mile, they give us advice on “How To Run The Christian Race”:
I. Lay Aside Every Weight
“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us …”
This just makes sense. No serious runner loads himself down with things that will hinder him when he runs. When you see a runner, they generally have on shorts, and a tank top or other very lightweight shirt; for runners, lightness in their clothing is a premium, because you don’t want anything to weigh you down when you run.
Hebrews 12 says the same thing is true in the Christian race. It tells us to “lay aside every encumbrance”. The word “encumbrance” means a “weight, a burden, a load which is bulging.” You don’t want anything to “weigh you down” as you try to finish the Christian race.
When I read this verse, I thought about the trip Cheryl & Michael & I went on to England for our 10th anniversary at our church in Louisiana. We spent a month in England, with nothing more than a backpack for our road trips. At one point, we’d been to Jane Austen’s home, and we actually shopped in a used bookstore in her town, where we found lots of classic books. Cheryl loves old books, and so she bought a number of them, and stuffed them in her backpack. Well, the next thing on our the agenda was to climb Box Hill, which wasn’t far away, and is featured in Jane Austen’s novel Emma. Well, when we looked back at the pictures of that climb, Cheryl started laughing. I led the hike up the hill, and from time to time I took pictures of Cheryl & Michael as we climbed. But Cheryl said: “Look how I kept getting farther and farther behind, the farther we went!” Part of the problem was that she had this whole backpack full of books on her back, that weighed her down and made the climb so much more difficult.
That’s just what Hebrews 12 is talking about here. Don’t let anything “weigh you down” and hinder you as you run your Christian race. But unfortunately that’s just what too many of us ARE doing: we’re trying to “run the Christian race” all loaded with things that are just weighing us down. Especially, it says “and the sin” which so easily entangles us. Is there any sin in your life that is hindering you from following God?
Take a moment right now and ask yourself: “Is there anything in my life right now that is ‘weighing me down’ spiritually” and keeping me from being the follower of Jesus that God wants me to be?”
— it could be a sinful habit that is acting like a cancer in your spiritual life, that is draining your spiritual strength. You will never be the person God wants you to be, until you deal with that sin that is dragging you down.
— maybe it’s bitterness over how you have been treated, or your unwillingness to forgive someone. Unforgiveness is a heavy weight; you can’t successfully run the Christian race while you carry the weight of unforgiveness on your back!
— Maybe it’s some friends who are dragging your down spiritually. There may be a person, or a group of people, in your life, that as long as you have active fellowship with them, you will never be able to run a strong Christian life. Because they’re dragging you down. God may be telling some of us today, that you need to sever your ties with a person or a group of people, so that you can run the race God has for you.
— Maybe what’s dragging you down is a love for something in this world that is so strong that it’s keeping you from really following Christ with all your heart. Jesus said you can’t serve two masters. You can’t run the Christian race and run the world’s race at the same time. You’ve got to pick which race is the most important for you to run.
— It could even be something “good” that is weighing you down; but you are giving that “good” things too much attention, and it is taking your focus away from the race that God wants you to run.
Maybe it’s something entirely different than anything I’ve mentioned. Pray about it. Ask God’s Holy Spirit: Lord, show me anything that is “slowing me down” in my Christian race. And ask Him to help you “lay aside” any encumbrance that might be in your life, so you can run the race that God has set before you, unhindered.
II. Run With Endurance
“… and let us run with endurance …”
It’s significant that the verse says “run with endurance” the race which is set before us. The Christian “race” is a race which must be run with ENDURANCE. Someone has well said, “The Christian life is not a sprint; it is a marathon.” How many people have set out to follow Christ with great zeal at first, but after some time, turned aside? Or who got really “fired up” to rededicate themselves to God, but didn’t keep up that commitment?
Jesus mentions this very thing in The Parable of the Soils in Matthew 13. He said the Gospel is “sown” in the world like seed, and some of it hits the road, and the birds devour it. Those are the people who outright reject it. But then He said, some of it finds thin soil, and it sprouts up quickly at first — but then it withers quickly away. Jesus said that is like the person who hears the gospel and receives it at first with great joy, but they just as quickly fall away when persecution or difficulty comes along.
That’s another way of saying that the Christian life is not a “sprint”; it is a marathon. It is not how fast you go at first, but that you keep going. Run with endurance. Keep it up for the long haul.
When I got sick back in 2012, I was basically bedfast for a year. Thankfully the Lord raised me up, and I began to get better. At first I walked for some time, and then I began to run. But I really had to take it slowly; I only thought I was slow before, now I was REALLY slow! But I found out, if I went too fast, I couldn’t finish. I had to pace myself. So I just made a conscious decision to slow down, and take smaller strides, and I might not go very quickly, but I could finish the 3 miles or whatever I had set out to run that day, if I just slowed down and settled in for the long run.
The Christian life is a lot like that. We don’t have to “sprint” out of the starting gate for Christ. What He really wants us for us to stick with it for the long haul. It’s not how fast you start; it’s not how fast you go at any certain point in your life; it’s that you KEEP ON following Christ until you FINISH the course He gave you to run in this life!
— Jesus didn’t “sprint” out the starting gate. He didn’t even begin His earthly ministry until He was 30 years old. But He ran the race His Father set before Him, to the very end.
It’s not how quickly you start the Christian life. It’s not how “on fire” you are for a moment; it’s that you KEEP the flame going for the long run. We had some guys in our youth group, when Cheryl & I were in high school and college, who were “on fire” for the Lord. But their “fire” quickly burned out, and they stopped following. It’s not about how “on fire” you can be at any given time. It’s whether you keep the flame burning. It’s not how quickly you “sprint” out of the gate; it’s that you keep running the race; that you “run with endurance.”
— “Run with endurance” means you get up and have your quiet time, every day, even when you don’t feel like it.
— “Run with endurance” means you remain faithful to the ministry God gave you, even when you don’t “feel” like it’s doing any good.
— “Run with endurance” means you continue to follow The Lord, even when people hurt you, or oppose you, or neglect you. Those things happen to every Christian, not just you. Running with endurance means you don’t let that stop you. You just keep on following Christ regardless.
— “Run with endurance” means you keep following the Lord even as you go through some difficult trials in your life. You don’t let those things “derail” you. You keep on putting one step in front of the other, following Jesus.
I was never a big marathon runner, the most I ever ran was 13 miles. But when I’d get on one of those longer runs, there were a lot of times I didn’t see how I could finish the course ahead of me; the only thing that helped me was thinking: “just take one more step” — just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about how you’ve got 6 more miles to go. Just take the next step.
And that’s what some of us need to do spiritually too. Don’t think about what God’s gonna have you do the next year, or in five years, or ten years. Just take the next step that God has for you TODAY:
— Just get up and read your Bible TODAY.
— Just go to church TODAY.
— Just show up for your ministry TODAY.
— Just turn away from that sin TODAY.
— Just do what God’s telling you TODAY.
Just “keep putting one step in front of the other,” spiritually. And don’t let anything stop you. JUST KEEP GOING. Just keep going! Even when you don’t “feel like it.” And ESPECIALLY when you don’t feel like it!
“Run with endurance the race that is set before you.”
III. Run The Race Which Is Set Before YOU
“… the race which is set before us …”
I think this is important to mention: each of us has to run the race which God has set before us. Now, there is a sense in which we are all running the same race: we’re all following Christ; we all need to be faithful to that. But in another sense we each have a particular race which God has set before US personally. We can’t run anyone else’s race; we can’t run the race we WISH we were running. We can only run the race which God has set before US. We each have a different race. My race may be very different from yours; your race may be entirely different than someone else’s. We each have our own particular race, that God has personally called us to run.
1776 George Washington made his famous crossing of the Delaware to surprise attack the Hessians (the German troops the British had hired to fight the colonies) at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day. But you may not know that Washington actually split his army up into different groups, each taking a different path to attack the enemy. One group went with him, to cross the Delaware (and they later split into two different roads to meet at Trenton) and he sent two other groups south to attack as well. They were all part of the same army, but they each had a different route that their commander needed them to take.
It’s the same with us and the Lord. He’s the “General;” we’re His “troops.” And God has set us each on the path that He needs US to take, according to His master plan. So the race that is set before YOU may be a bit different than the one He has set before someone else.
— For example, I know of a young man, we’ll call him “Mr. S,” who lives in Vietnam who has to run his Christian “race” against his family who is pressuring him to give up his faith and return to Buddhism. He’s got a hard race to run, that most of us do not have to face. Some of us do; some have to try to run your “Christian race” against family and friends and loved ones who would hinder you.
— I know of believers overseas, in India, and in Bulgaria, who have to run their Christian race through a path of poverty. Most of us in America don’t have that race, but we do have to run our race through the temptations of prosperity and entertainment and sensuality, that continually bombard us, and tempts us to stop following the Lord.
— Some of us may wish we were running a different race than the one we are. Maybe you wish you could sing, or preach, or teach, or use some different gift than God gave you. Don’t worry about running a race God never set in front of you; run the race He DID set before you! That’s all He asks of you. Maybe you can’t preach or teach, but you can do a “Trunk or Treat.” Do that! Use what He gave you.
— Some of us have to run our race through great discouragement in life events, or disappointment in other people.
— Some of us have to run our race through heath difficulties.
— Some of us run our race while spending most of our time and effort caring for a sick spouse or other loved one.
And on and on. We each have our different circumstances. We each have a different “race” that is set before us.
Maybe you wish your circumstances could be changed, and that you could run a different “race” than you are. But you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is run the race God has set in front of you. You won’t be judged because you didn’t run somebody else’s race; you will only be judged by how you ran the race God set before you!
THE ONLY RACE YOU CAN RUN IS THE ONE GOD SETS BEFORE YOU!
I think of Peter at the end of the Book of John. Jesus had just told Peter that there would come a time when he would grow old, and they would bind his hands, and take him where he did not want to go — thus indicating the kind of death by which he would glorify God. The next verse says that Peter saw John and asked Jesus: “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? YOU follow Me!” Peter was basically asking, “What about HIS race? I’m gonna have to suffer; what’s HE gonna have to do?” But Jesus said, “You just follow Me!” Don’t you worry about the race I’m giving anybody else. YOU just run the race I set before YOU!
And that’s true for us as well. The only race Jesus calls you to run is the one He’s set before you. Don’t wish you weren’t running your race. Don’t wish you were running somebody else’s race instead. YOU just run the race God sets before YOU, whatever it is, with all He gives you. You will not be judged because you didn’t run someone else’s race. You will only be judged by how you ran the race that God sets in front of YOU! Run YOUR race — the one God set before YOU — with endurance.
IV. Fix Your Eyes On Jesus
“… fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.”
The Bible says that while we are running our Christian race, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. My friend at the Cherry Street Mile told me, while I was celebrating early: “Keep your eyes on the finish line.” Keep your eyes on the goal! So Hebrews tells us here: “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” That’s so important. I remember in drivers ed as a teenager they told us: don’t look into the opposing headlights, because you tend to drift towards whatever you are looking at. Keep your eyes fixed on where you’re going.
In that same way, this scripture advises us: “Fix your eyes on Jesus” — Look to Him; drift towards Him, and not anyone or anything else. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” …
— Don’t fix your eyes on the race ahead. You’ll go, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all that; I don’t know if I can keep it up.” I don’t know if I can do that ministry; I don’t know if I can turn away from that temptation; I don’t know if I can do that hard thing God asked me to do; I don’t know if I can make it through this sickness; I don’t know if I can care for this spouse; I don’t know if I can keep this race up for the long run. DON’T LOOK AT THE RACE. No, you CAN’T do it by yourself: Look to Jesus!
— And don’t look at the other “runners” either. Sometimes in our Christian life we fix our eyes on people in the church who are offensive, or inconsistent, or hypocritical, or selfish, or radical, or stuck in the mud, or whatever, and we let them turn us away from the church, or worse, from following Christ. Don’t look at the other runners. You just run after Jesus!
But then sometimes we make the opposite, but just as wrong, mistake, of fixing our eyes on GOOD people in the church. We think, “Well, as long as so-and-so is here, we’ll be ok.” They’re running the race; they’re not gonna stop! But what happens if they move; what happens if they finish their race? I remember an old Amy Grant song from way back in the 1970’s when I was a youth, which said: “Say goodbye to the feelings, ’cause the feelings go away. Say goodbye to the people, ’cause the people never stay.” As the song went on to say, “We’ve go to be faith-walkin’ people …”. We’ve got to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. If we fix our eyes on the other “runners” — good ones or bad ones — we’ll be disappointed; we’ve got to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Pastors will disappoint you; church members will disappoint you; family members will disappoint you; circumstances will disappoint you; and YOU will even disappoint yourself; fix your eyes on Jesus. He will never disappoint you. He is totally faithful; He is totally trustworthy; He will never leave you or forsake you; and He is absolutely glorious. He loved you so much that He died on the cross to pay for your sins, and rose again to be your living Savior. He sits at the right hand of God where He is interceding for you right now with God; if you will look to Him, He will take you by the hand and He will help you run your race. And one day, when you finish your race, you will run right into His arms! And “in His presence there is fullness of joy, and in His right hand there are pleasures forever”! You will be totally satisfied in His presence forever and ever, and you will never grow tired of Him. So like my friend at the Cherry Street Mile, Hebrews 12 says: Fix your eyes on HIM! Fix your eyes on Jesus.
When I was pastoring in Louisiana, our First Baptist Academy had a one mile run that each grade would do every year for P.E. The kids would train for it all year, and then at the end of the year we’d have a big day where each class would run. So for fun, and to help encourage them, I would get out and run with each of the classes. (One year I ran with 13 different classes — I was sure glad there was a few minutes break in between each one!) But even with the training they did in gym class, it was very difficult for a lot of the kids. So I would pick out one or two kids who were struggling on the first lap, and I’d say, “Run with me.” And we’d take it really slow, and I’d run alongside them, and say, “Don’t stop; keep going; let’s just go slow.” And almost every time, they were able to do it. Sometimes, we’d be on the very last lap, and you could see by the look on their face or by their body language that they were about to quit; and I would say, “No, you can’t stop now; we are almost there! Look up! There’s the finish line! Don’t look down on the ground; don’t look at your feet. Look up at that banner at the finish line; don’t take your eyes off of it, just run to it with all you have” — and almost every child would pick up the pace, and run strong through the finish line.
That is what Hebrews 12 is telling us here. Run the race God has set before you. Keep on running. When it’s hard, just keep putting one step in front of the other. Don’t let the things of this world drag you down. Don’t look at your circumstances; don’t look at other people; don’t look at yourself and your own weaknesses. Just keep your eyes fixed on Jesus — and RUN the race He’s set before you until the day you run into His arms!
— Would you pray right now and ask God is there’s anything in your life that is hindering you from following Him, and ask Him to help you set that aside today. Maybe a habit, an activity, a relationship or group …
— Are you tempted to give up, and God’s saying today: “Just keep putting one step in front of the other …”
— Maybe you’ve been wishing you had another race; ask God to help you run YOUR race
— Maybe you’ve been distracted by other things/people, but God’s saying: keep your eyes fixed on ME!
— Maybe you need to BEGIN the Christian race today, by asking Jesus to be your Lord & Savior for the very first time …