One of the favorite metaphors used by New Testament writers to describe the Christian life is that of the race. For example, the apostle asked the Corinthians, Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? (1 Cor 9:24). Many run, but not everyone is a winner.
The word race is stadion in the Greek, from which we get “stadium,” a running track about 200 yards long and 30 yards wide. On this track, the Corinthians observed the foot races as part of the annual games. They watched many run, but not everyone got the prize. Therefore, Paul exhorts the believers, run in such a way that you win. Run in such a way that you may win (1 Corinthians 9:24).
Winning not only requires putting forth every ounce of energy toward the goal, but also includes a willingness to obey, to submit to the leader. If the athlete runs out of bounds he loses. If he has a false start he’s out. As there are rules in a race there are commands in the Christian life, and our rule book is the Word of God. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work [and the Christian race] (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The author of Hebrews used the race metaphor, too, to urge his readers to keep running the Christian race toward the finish line. However, in this case, please take note of the plural personal pronouns:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-3
Too often we think of the Christian life as an individual race. It is my race. It is your race. That is, we often attempt to run it alone, or even in competition with one another. But that is not how this Scripture portrays it. Instead, the Christian race is a group activity. Yes, we have our own personal responsibility and we cannot blame anyone else for the lack of victory we experience in our lives. But, still, we do not run the race alone.
Finishing the Christian race victoriously cannot be accomplished in prideful independence, but only in the humility of interdependence. Therefore, as we stand upon the threshold of a new year, let us determine to practice 3 ongoing disciplines together.
Lay aside weights and sins (v. 1a).
Sin is a weight that drags us down and prevents us from running the race well. There are obvious sins that trip us up and cause us to fall, but there are also weights that perhaps may not be emphatically labeled sins, but still they hinder us. What are the weights that are holding you back? What are the habits that are weighing you down? There is much freedom in the Christian life, but it should not be exercised unless it builds up others. “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up (1 Cor. 10:23).
Sin entangles us; it “clings so closely.” It trips us up. Like a spider, it weaves its intricate, sticky web around every area of our lives. We must lay our sins aside. We must kill them. See, for example, 2 Timothy 2:22; Ephesians 4:31; 1 Peter 2:1; Colossians 3:5-6. Runners in the ancient games stripped down to the bare essentials. They wore nothing that was not necessary. Why? To let go of weights that would slow them down. We must do the same.
Run the race with endurance (v. 1b).
The word endurance is from a compound word meaning “to stay under.” This word pictures someone who successfully carries a heavy load for a long time without trying to escape. He remains under the discipline of the Christian life. He is not a quitter, but does the hard things instead of coasting through life.
James wrote of this endurance: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4). God often tests our faith in order to build within us the character qualities that are lacking, one of which is endurance. But running with endurance requires another quality, its companion: self-control.
Again, using the race metaphor, the apostle wrote in 1 Corinthians, everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things…So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. This is a picture of self-denial. Followers of Christ are called to a life of self-denial. Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). Running with endurance is not easy. It requires daily effort. Using cruise control in the Christian race is not a good idea.
Focus on Jesus and His finished work (vv. 2-3).
While we are running, we are looking—looking at Jesus. Not looking at ourselves, though self-examination is necessary. Not looking at others, though loving concern for them is necessary. Not looking at our past, though there is much to learn from it. But looking at Christ who is the “founder and perfecter” of our faith. He began a good work in us through faith and He will finish it by faith (Phil. 1:6; Col 2:7). What propelled Him to endure was “the joy set before Him.” The joy was not the cross itself. No. Whatever joy He set His eyes upon resulted in His willingness to endure the cross. The joy set before Him was the promise of a bride from the Father. What motivated His endurance was His desire to share His glory with His bride—us, believers (John 17). While doing so, he despised the shame brought upon Him by our sin—our shame. And then He sat down at the right hand of God because His work on our behalf was finished.
As we enter a new year, let us choose to embrace these ongoing disciplines in the Christian race. Let us lay aside the sins and weights that are slowing us down, let us endure while we run, and let us keep our eyes on the One who already ran the race on our behalf…and finished victoriously.
[This post is adapted from last Sunday’s sermon at Cornerstone Community Church.]