This is the third installment of our Coffee Cup Doctrine series, a look at popular verses referenced in the American Christian culture that are typically used apart from their scriptural context. You can read the introduction to the series here, the first installment here, and the second installment here.
Runners have, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” printed on their shirts, stamped on their water bottles, and written on their race bibs. I know some runners who have the verse as a tattoo.
Displaying that verse without context shows that you are religious and that you enjoy running. Hebrews 12:1, however, has nothing to do with sports.
Coffee cup commentary
To my fellow athletes and fitness lovers, the Bible is not about sports. Actually, the only verse that discusses athletics is 1 Timothy 4:8, “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” I have never seen that written on someone’s Nikes.
Trying to use Hebrews 12:1 to boost your spirits during your exercise routine turns a passage discussing the life of faith into a sentence shouting, “Go [insert your name]! You can do it!”
Hebrews 12:1 was not given to us in God’s Word to inspire us to run a half-marathon or start a couch to 5k plan. Its meaning is much deeper and much better.
Here’s the passage in its entirety:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
The passage begins with “Therefore,” so we look back to find the reason for this verse.
The writer of Hebrews has just finished listing Old Testament saints who displayed faith in God including Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Rahab. The author wraps up that section by noting the horrible persecution Christians underwent, including imprisonment, stoning, and being sawn in two (Hebrews 11:35-37). He states that all of these people gained approval through their faith, just as New Testament saints were saved by faith.
The passage tells Christians to put down the distractions and sins of the world and live the Christian life with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the One who gave us faith and who will perfect it; the One who has completed the work the Father sent Him to do.
What we miss
By turning this verse into a pick-me-up mantra, we miss the great truths and great encouragements in the passage. The verses are describing Christianity. The race is a metaphor for the day-by-day life of faith. A race is a good example: It is long and difficult; you cannot stop in the middle and take a break; there is a leader, and there is a finish line. The same is true for Christianity.
All of the verbs in the first two verses are ongoing verbs. Christians don’t lay aside sin, run, and fix their eyes on Jesus once. We do it every day. We are to continue to abandon sin and believe on Christ with endurance, not losing heart. We continue, knowing that the saints who came before us persevered and gained approval and that our own Savior endured hostility so that we wouldn’t lose heart.
The Christian lives life or runs the race by watching Jesus – first to see who He is and then to follow His example that He gave when He came to this world. We are told to fix our eyes on Him, not to look away from Him. We stop looking at ourselves and our sins and turn our eyes to Jesus, and we follow Him. This is faith. A man wrote a little pamphlet on this verse called “Looking Unto Jesus”. It fits in your pocket but is one of all-time my favorite reads. He begins his book with this:
Looking unto Jesus.
Only three words, but in those three words is the whole secret of life.
Perhaps runners understand that the race in this verse is a metaphor, but they want to show that they are Christian runners. Misusing the Bible to fit our hobbies and our endeavors by sticking it on our T-shirt doesn’t give a very clear picture of the One who sits at the right hand of the throne of God. Rather than stamping Hebrews 12:1 on our running gear, we should, every day, let go of anything that hinders us from believing in and following our Savior, set our faces toward Jesus, and live looking unto Him.