The author of Hebrews challenges his original audience to “run the race with endurance” and to cast aside those things that will slow them down. And while we may not be tempted to return the Mosaic Law as they were, we too are called to “finish our race” by keeping the faith.
As some readers may know, when I am not reading a theology book or hanging with the family I can be found working out for an upcoming race. A race that often involves mud and obstacles. As in any race, we can start off well, but fail to reach the finish line if we become sluggish in our training and fail to keep our eyes focused on the finish line.
This truth about running races was an analogy used by Paul (1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 2:5) as well as the author of Hebrews (12:1) to describe the Christian life. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews were afraid of running the race in vain (Gal 2:2) even if they started off well (Gal 5:7) because they did not want to fail to receive what was promised (1 Cor 9:27; Heb 10:35-36). This motivated them to press on and strive to reach their goal (Philippians 3:14; Heb 4:11) so that they could reach that finish line (2 Tim 4:7) and exclaim:
I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
And they encouraged others to do the same.
There is nothing like crossing the finish line and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Knowing that all that training, running, and fighting through the obstacles on the course were not futile or pointless. Paul seemed to agree (Philippians 2:16):
[I am] holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
What does it mean to finish the race we call the Christian life?
In reading through these and other passages, it seems clear that the finish line is crossed when we endure in or hold fast to our faith in Christ until the end (1 Cor 15:1-2; Col 1:21-23 also Matt 10:22,28,32-33; 24:13) No where is this idea more prevalent than in the book of Hebrews.
Here are some passages (quoted from the NET Bible) that capture this:
- how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (2:3)
- We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in. (3:6)
- For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end. (3:14)
- Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. (4:14)
- But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises. (6:11-12)
- … we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us (6:18)
- And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy (10:23)
- So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. (10:35-36)
- But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls.(10:39)
- Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? (12:25)
- let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name. (13:15)
The author obviously knows the people he is writing to, and is deeply concerned that they are in danger of not finishing their race. They are tempted to make a “shipwreck” of their faith and thus become “disqualified” from the race. While the author is planning to visit the community being addressed soon, the urgency of the situation has likely caused him to write this homiletic letter (13:18-19; 22).
As one reads Hebrews, we can see several characteristics of the community being addressed, which help us understand both the situation they are in and the point of the book.
They started their race off well
The community, like the one addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5:7) was running well. They had been persecuted for their faith and had experienced “hard sufferings” that included imprisonment and confiscation of their possessions (10:32-35).
The author encourages the community to think back about the past. To those sufferings that they endured. And even further in the past to that time when they had heard the Gospel message, declared by the Son (1:2; 2:3) and relayed to them through Jesus’ followers with power and signs (2:3-4). Back to when they started the race by placing their confidence and hope (3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23, 35) in this message and the Savior it proclaimed. Back to when they had sought refuge in God’s promises (6:18) of “a better and heavenly country” (11:16) and an “unshakeable kingdom” (12:28) that will be given on the Day when Christ returns (10:25) to those who are “eagerly waiting” (9:28).
They are sluggish and in danger of not completing their race
Why does the author appeal to the strong start of the community? Because despite running well in the beginning they are tempted to give up (2:18; 4:15). They are sluggish, immature, and unskilled because they have not been training (5:11-14; 6:11-12). They have not been paying attention and now they are showing signs of drifting away and neglecting salvation (2:1-4) as they grow weary and find the obstacles in their path more than they can bear.
While these things represent someone who is not in good shape, the real danger is that this could lead to an even more serious problem (3:7-8, 10-11, 15, 4:7).
A hard heart.
The hard heart is a dangerous condition. If it is not treated it can lead to “an evil, unbelieving heart” that causes one to “fall away from the living God” (3:12).
The author encourages a community that has “drooping hands” and “weak knees” to pay attention to the message they heard and start training so they will get stronger. This will prevent them from having a hard heart, getting hurt, and “tearing things out of joint” (12:12-13).
If they don’t heed the warnings they might be disqualified
There are two possible paths this sluggish community can take. They could continue down the path they are on and become “deceived by the deceitfulness of sin” and cultivate a hard heart that leads to trampling Christ in their unbelief (3:12-13; 10:29).
Or they could start paying attention to the author’s pleading and start training. This would help them get back on track and cling to their confidence that God will deliver on His promise to provide a “better country” to those who are remain in Christ through enduring faith (6:11-12; 11:13-16).
If the those in the community end up committing apostasy and set aside their faith, confidence, assurance, and hope in Christ they will face being disqualified.
What does that mean?
While that is often debated, here is how the author describes their fate.
They will no longer be part of “God’s house” (3:6), have a “share in Christ”? (3:14), and will be denied entrance into the rest (3:11,18-19; 4:3-5) because they are crucifying once again the Son of God (and profaning the blood of the covenant) to their own harm (6:6; 10:28-29). Therefore they will face a punishment that is worse than the capital punishment called for in the Mosaic Law (2:3; 10:28-29; 12:25) and their souls will be destroyed (10:39).
The author is confident that the readers will finish the race.
The author is confident that the members of the community will not be disqualified (6:9) from their race (or salvation).
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation
Why? I don’t think the author is confident in his community because the warnings about the need to endure in their faith are hypothetical. A warning against something that is not possible does not make much sense, especially in light of the fact that the entire theme of the book (not just Hebrews 6) is filled with these severe warnings and other Scriptures also stress the need to endure in our faith.
The author knows these people and has seen signs that what they profess is genuine faith. These signs include their confidence and hope (3:6,14), their love for others (6:10), and their persevering through hardship (10:32-35). Therefore he is hopeful that they will be shaken from their lethargic state and begin to train hard so they can run well as they had been doing in the past.
In this renewed strength they will endure in their faith and will not shrink back when faced with obstacles (10:38-39), and they will not fail to obtain the goal of “God’s grace” (12:15). Nor will they fail to inherit the promises (6:12; 10:36) or enter God’s rest (3:19;4:1,11) when the race is over.
For these hurting, fearful people getting back on track meant getting focused on the Savior who has already run the race and completed it so that we who endure in faith can enjoy His victory.
For most of us, like our Hebrew community, there are points along our race when we can lose sight of the finish line. The audience clearly was having trouble focusing on Jesus (8:1;12:2) and the victory that He achieved (2:8). In the middle of our race, the challenges we face “today” can sap our energy and eclipse the hope for a better future. A future that includes a day when Jesus returns to fully destroy the devil (2:14), to “make His enemies a footstool” (1:13), and to place all things in “subjection to Himself” (2:8). If we want to finish the race and keep the faith we must fight against our tendency to be sluggish and dull hearers and keep alert and focused on our Savior.