Through the ages, Hebrews 11 reminds us, God has raised up men and women to love him and praise his name, and he has called them to live by faith. The details have changed—Abraham was called to leave his entire world and travel someplace else; Moses was called to lead his people out of slavery and be the man through whom God would give his people law; David was called to rule the people in accordance with that law; the prophets were called to challenge and rebuke the people, including the kings of their times, for the ways in which they were misusing and disobeying that law—but the central command has always been the same: base your entire life on the belief that God is who he says he is and that he’s faithful to do what he says he will do.
Generation after generation lived and died on that basis, waiting for God to keep his promise to send the Messiah; and then Jesus came and accomplished our salvation, and then he left again, promising to return—and since then, generation after generation have lived and died waiting for him to keep that promise. All of them received part of God’s blessing, but none fully received it in this world; and yet, they did not lose heart, but stayed true to him, running the race of faith all the way to the end. Abraham and Moses, the apostle Paul and John the evangelist, Augustine and the Cappadocians, Martin Luther and John Calvin, William Carey and Hudson Taylor, and the heroes of faith of our own lives—all of them did what they did, not because they had some confirmation or some experience we lacked, but simply by faith, because they trusted that what God had promised, he would be completely faithful to do.
And therefore, Hebrews says, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us do the same. The point here is not that all these people are watching us, but that they are witnesses in the legal sense: they testify with their lives that the race of faith is one that we can win, because God gives us the power to do so, and that crossing that finish line is truly a victory. As the singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends put it in her song “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” we hear them telling us, “Don’t quit,” because “the finish is worth every inch of the road.” They bear witness to us that God is indeed faithful, and we will never regret putting all our trust in him and giving him everything we have. The only thing we will ever regret, in the end, is failing to do so.
Therefore, the author says, let’s commit to this; and he specifies two things we need to do. One, we need to shed all our excess weight, everything that burdens us and slows us down as we try to run. He’s not talking about sin here, that’s the next clause. Instead, what is this? It’s too much of a good thing. You can think of this like the Oregon Trail, travelers setting out with all sorts of furniture that they had to abandon in order to make it through the mountains before winter closed the passes; or you can think of it in terms of physical fitness, of weight that comes from eating more food than our bodies need for energy. Either way, the point is clear: these are things which aren’t wrong, they’re good things, but which come to have too big a place in our lives—they use up energy and attention and trust and love which should go only to God. For me, one of the issues this way I had to address back in seminary was baseball. It’s a marvelously good thing, but it was sucking away time from my classwork, from ministry, from Sara, from time spent in prayer and Scripture—it was, spiritually speaking, excess weight. I had to cut back for the sake of my health; and, over time, I did.
Beyond that, of course, you have things which are wrong in and of themselves; and here we have a bit of uncertainty in the text. Most texts of Hebrews have the word the NIV translates “entangles,” but that word takes some fiddling to make sense of it; for my part, I go with the minority who follow the oldest text we have of Hebrews, which reads this way: “let us throw off . . . every sin that so easily distracts us.” Not only is it the oldest, it vividly captures the reality that if you want to win a race, you have to stay on the course. You can’t let yourself be distracted and tempted into running off the road and chasing after something else—if you do that, you’re going to lose. That’s what sin does to us. We run the race of faith by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who marked out the course for us—he is the author, the pioneer, of our faith, the one who blazed the trail and is leading us home to the Father—and the only way to stay on course is to keep our eyes fixed on him; and sin is always trying to catch our eye, to get us to look at anyone or anything else, so that instead of following Jesus, we’ll run off the road.
In other words, then, we need to look at the good things in our lives and figure out which ones are too much of a good thing, which ones are slowing us down spiritually because they’re too important to us, and let go of them; and we need to throw off sin because it doesn’t just slow us down, it steers us off the road entirely and sends us off in the wrong direction. And of course, both these things are much easier said than done, and nothing we’ll do perfectly in this life; but these are tasks to which we need to be committed if we are to run this race all the way through to the end. That’s what it’s about. You can run a brilliant race 95% of the way, but if you give up and don’t run the last 5%, you lose. The story is told that when Napoleon was asked why he and his armies lost at Waterloo, he answered, “The British fought five minutes longer.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s something that could be said of a lot of battles, and a lot of athletic contests. The race goes not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but often, they go to the one that keeps running, keeps fighting, keeps striving five minutes longer.
That’s not easy to do; but in this as in all things, our ultimate model is Jesus. However rough you may have it, Hebrews says, look at Jesus, who had it a whole lot worse, but for the joy set before him, he endured the cross. He took the pain and the agony, and though others looked at him on the cross and saw only shame and disgrace, he rejected that—he knew it for a victory, because he accepted it in obedience to the saving and reconciling will of his Father in heaven. He took the worst this world could hit him with, and he didn’t try to avoid it, he just went right on through it. And in so doing, he opened the way for us—he became the way for us—so that all we have to do is keep looking to him, keep watching him, and follow.