A Cloud of Witnesses Shows Us How to Run the Race of Life

Although most of our loved ones were not martyred for their faith, they too are our “heroes of the faith,” persevering through all kinds of sufferings, persecutions, and trials in this world. They too counted themselves as merely pilgrims and strangers in this world, but now reside in their homeland—a better city and country.

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 53:3-6; 10-12; Hebrews 12:1-15; Hebrews 12:1-2 (text)
October 24, 2010 • Download PDF sermon


Burning of Latimer and Ridley, from John Foxe's book (1563)

Burning of Latimer and Ridley, from John Foxe's book (1563)

On October 16, 1555, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, two English Protestant scholar-ministers, died as martyrs. They were condemned to be burned at the stake during the reign of Roman Catholic queen, Mary Tudor, widely known today as Bloody Mary because some 300 believers were martyred during her 5-year reign. Four months later, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the English church, also suffered the same death at the stake.

As the fire started burning under them, Latimer says to his friend Ridley, “Be of good courage, master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Ridley then says in a loud voice, “Lord, receive my spirit!” Latimer in turn prays, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul.”

Why did the Catholic Church burn these three faithful men at the stake? Like many other Protestant Reformers who were martyred in those days, they rejected the Catholic doctrines of the Mass as a continual repetition of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice and the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Other martyrs suffered death as they stood firm in their embrace of the Reformation’s doctrine of justification through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone against the Catholic addition of good works for justification.

Of such men and women the writer of the letter to the Hebrews spoke about in Chapter 11. He praised all the Old Testament heroes for their firm faith, “For by it the people of old received their commendation” (Heb 11:2). These faithful people of God looked forward to God’s promises which they never saw, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.” And although they lived in this world, they counted themselves as “strangers and exiles on the earth,” sojourners on their way to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:13, 16).

This coming week, Filipinos would flock to the gravesites of their loved ones and friends who have died—some of them faithful believers in Christ—to remember and honor them, culminating on November 1, which is called Todos Los Santos or “All Saints’ Day.” Although most of our loved ones were not martyred for their faith, they too are our “heroes of the faith,” persevering through all kinds of sufferings, persecutions, and trials in this world. They too counted themselves as merely pilgrims and strangers in this world, but now reside in their homeland—a better city and country.

These loved ones and friends, together with the Old Testament “heroes of the faith,” are our examples in our own pilgrimage in this world. Our text says that they are “a great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us. These witnesses are our examples in running and finishing the race of life. The Apostle Paul likewise declares near the end of his own race, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).

How did they run and finish the race of life? First, before the race, they prepared and trained body and soul. Next, during the race, they ran with endurance. Lastly, they set a goal, the finish line, where Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, awaits with our prize.

How to Prepare
No athlete goes into competition without preparation. Sometimes, the preparation begins when the athlete is at a very young age. Two things are very important in the preparation: (1) light and small equipment, and (2) disciplined training and repetitive practice.

Light and Small Equipment
“Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.”

In all foot races, whether sprints or long-distance, runners today wear as little and as light as they can. Research continues to produce lighter and lighter shirts, shorts and shoes for running, soccer, basketball, swimming, cycling and almost all other sports, except weightlifting obviously. Mountain climbers scale higher and increasing more difficult heights by using the lightest and smallest backpacks, ropes, climbing gear, tents, sleeping bags, clothing and boots.

Why the obsession with light and small equipment? Because the lighter weight an athlete carries, the faster he performs for a longer time. Speed combined with endurance is the name of the game. Have you ever seen a fat world-class runner? All of them are lean but muscular. How does Manny Pacquiao overpower bigger and much taller boxers? He stays light and by staying light, he maintains his foot and hand speed against much slower boxers. As well, did you know that the English word gymnasium or gymnastics come from the Greek word gymnos, which means stripped or naked? In addition to aesthetic admiration of the male physique in the ancient Greek world, men went to gymnasiums to train for athletic competition without clothes. Thus, even ancient athletes knew that the heavier they were, the more strain they put on their heart, lungs, muscles and bones.

In like manner, the Hebrews writer exhorts all believers to shed all excess weight, which he uses as a metaphor for sin. Sin hinders, burdens and weighs down our spiritual growth in our lives. What are some of these sins? John says they are the love of the world and its lusts, desires and possessions. We have ambitions, families, hobbies, sports, Facebook and video games that hinder our focus on Christ and his Word on the Lord’s Day and on our daily walk with God. We harbor envy, jealousy, anger, malice and hate against our Christian brethren. All of these are obstacles along the way in our pilgrimage to heaven itself. All of these sins are weighing our lives down and are to be removed and laid aside.

We read examples of Old Testament saints who laid aside sin and self in Hebrews 11. Abraham laid aside his family, home, and prosperity in the Ur of the Chaldees to live in tents in the Promised Land as a sojourner. Moses laid aside his privileged and honored status as a prince of Egypt, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:25-26). Prophets forsook the comforts of their homes,  going about “in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb 11:37-38).

Think of all the tens of thousands of men and women who left the Roman Catholic faith because the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to the truths of justification by faith alone in Christ alone and to the heretical doctrine of the Mass and transubstantiation. Like Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, they remained firm in their newfound faith, even when they knew that the cold, dark dungeon and even the gruesome, cruel fire at the stake awaited them.

Think of all the persecuted Christians throughout the world today, how they refuse to deny Christ even if their homes and lives are threatened. Like the Biblical heroes of the faith, they laid aside all the worldly comforts and sins for the sake of Christ.

Alas for many “carnal” Christians today! They can’t lay aside their worldly lusts and desires even on the Lord’s Day, for their churches are like theaters, stadiums and malls with all the comforts, pleasures and entertainment their itching ears and lustful hearts desire. They can’t put aside all the busyness of their lives and recreational pursuits for one day in a week; indeed, not even for an hour or two to attend one Lord’s Day worship service. They can’t lay aside their self-centered presuppositions, traditions and emotions to listen to God’s truths in his word, listening instead to self-centered prosperity gospel, mystic new revelations, and self-absorbed pop psychology.

Will they die for their faith when they don’t even have an inkling of what they believe and why? Will they be willing to be tortured and burned for such trivial and nebulous doctrines as justification by faith alone in Christ alone and the real spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and wine?

Disciplined Training and Repetitive Practice
“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things… But I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Cor 9:25-27).

Just as an athlete goes through painful physical training, so Paul endures physical, financial and emotional hardship to preach the gospel to all nations. These sayings are tried and true: “Practice makes perfect,” and “No pain, no gain.” Repetition makes the athletic performance routine and second nature to the athlete. In boxing, chess, or basketball, a player knows instinctively how to respond to all of his opponent’s moves because he has rehearsed and played the game over and over before the actual competition.

Likewise, how do you, as a Christian, discipline and train yourself to endure the race of life? If you practice Christian discipline it means you are a disciple of Christ. Jesus himself tells us one way to train in discipline, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31). How would you abide in the words of Christ if not other than regular daily reading and hearing of Scriptures every Lord’s Day, at the same time studying, memorizing and meditating on them?

Another Christian discipline that trains you is praying without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17), praying persistently so as not to lose heart and give up the race (Luke 18:1). Paul knows that prayer is the Christian’s most powerful resource in the fight of faith, so he exhorts you to “[pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication… for all the saints” (Eph 6:18).

The word of God and prayer are essential parts of regular Lord’s Day worship. The third vital part of worship is the partaking of the Lord’s Supper which nourishes your soul, just as Christ himself declared, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). Partaking of the Holy Communion, as Paul said, is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).

Lastly, serving God and serving our brethren trains and disciplines us for our race. How do you learn love that is patient and kind, that bears and endures all things (1 Cor 13:4, 7) if you don’t continue in loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39)? Jesus disciplined and trained himself for his sufferings and temptations when he “learned obedience through what he suffered” all the way to the cross by serving and loving God and his brethren (Heb 5:8; Phil 2:8).

Before we set ourselves on the starting blocks in the race of our lives, we are to lay aside sin that so weighs down and hinders our walk with Christ. We are to discipline and train ourselves in consistent Bible study, prayer, worship on the Lord’s Day, and Christian service.

Painting depicting Pheidippides giving word of victory at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

Painting depicting Pheidippides giving word of victory at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

How to Run
The runners are Old Testament “witnesses” (Heb 12:1) who are “commended” for their faith (Heb 11:39). The English word “martyr” comes from a Greek root word that was translated “witnesses” and “commended.” Thus, the martyrs of the early church were those were witnesses to their faith and who gained the approval of Christ and a good reputation among the people. These early church heroes gave a good account of themselves as they witnessed to their faith by their words and their faithful lives.

A second meaning to the word “witnesses” has been proposed: they are spectators watching saints who are still alive running the race of life in an arena. However, this is not very likely for two reasons. First, there is no other New Testament text that portrays saints in heaven who are watching saints on earth. Second, the joy of these saints in heaven will not be complete if they are watching their loved ones and brethren suffering in this world. As well, this view might spawn the idea that we can pray to saints in heaven who are watching us. This can never be true, since only Jesus mediates for us while he is seated at the right hand of God in heaven.

We are not spectators in the race of life either. Rather, we are participants in this long, difficult race, and our examples in running the race are those “witnesses” who have gone to the heavenly city before us.

Let us run…
Our spiritual life is like a 42-kilometer marathon race, a long distance event. Can you run 42 kilometers, or even just one kilometer, without stopping to catch your breath and rest your legs? This is why athletes train and discipline their bodies and shed extra weight. They have to perform with speed and endurance.

Our lives as well are a long struggle with sufferings, trials and afflictions, and so require endurance and perseverance. In the race of life, we have to run and finish the course. Our spiritual growth requires our active participation and perseverance.

… with endurance…
The letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to run with endurance the whole course set before us, that is, our lives. It must not surprise us if we struggle and suffer as Christians in this life, so we need endurance: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… For you have need of endurance (Heb 10:32, 36). With regular training and practice, a long-distance runner knows how to pace himself, what his body is capable of doing, and when is the right time to give it all to win. This is only possible with endurance.

Likewise, you need endurance in your life’s race. To develop this endurance, all the training and discipline of regular Bible study and prayer individually and in the worship services are required. Participating regularly in the Lord’s Supper will nourish and strengthen your soul. And by serving God and fellow believers, we are trained in obedience. You are to continue in this discipline not only in your preparations, but as you run the whole race as well.

… the race that is set before us.
The race before us is long. The finish line is never in sight until the last few hundred meters. So while we run the race, our sights are set on the race course, with its twists and turns, uphills and downhills, smooth and rough places, in the heat and cold wind. We can’t take it easy because the way to eternal life is narrow and full of obstacles. This is what we have trained and disciplined our body and soul for. We have cast aside the sin that weighs us down. We now run with speed and endurance to finish the whole race. We do not quit in the middle of the race because of sin.

Near the end of the race, all our preparations, discipline and running through the race of our lives will be in sight. The goal, the finish line, will be around the last turn, the last hill, and the last rough place.

What the Goal is
“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.”

In 2 Timothy 4:7-8, near the end of Paul’s life, he says he has finished the race, fought the good fight, and kept the faith. And at the finish line, there is his reward waiting for him: the crown of righteousness, eternal life, which Christ would award to him.

The writer of Hebrews adds to this goal of the crown of righteousness and eternal life. As we run the race of life, we are to set as our goal, our finish line, Jesus himself, the founder and perfecter, the author and finisher, of our faith. When Jesus is our goal, we can keep the faith and finish the long and difficult race set before us.

Consider all the heroes of the faith. Previously in Hebrews 11, the heroes of our faith were the “witnesses” from the Old Testament. We studied how they cast aside sin and how they ran their race. Then we emulate their faithful lives.

Lastly, but most importantly, consider Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith. After he came, he himself is your final hero and goal. Why? Because no matter how faithful, how disciplined, and how godly the Old Testament saints were, they can never be the founders and perfecters of your faith. Christ alone is the founder of your faith because only his Spirit can give you the gifts of new birth, faith and repentance. Only Christ lived a perfect life to give you perfect righteousness. Only the Spirit of Christ can give you the discipline and endurance required to run the race.

Consider Jesus, the perfecter of your faith, because he perfected the faith of all the saints who have gone to heaven ahead of you. He fulfilled and perfected all Old Testament types and shadows: he is better than all the angels in heaven, a Prophet greater than Moses, a High Priest greater than Aaron, the Mediator of a better covenant, and the only True Temple. He alone is able to open your minds to all the things written concerning himself in all Scriptures—the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:27, 44-45).

Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith because he himself endured the race that his Father in heaven set before him. The cross of Christ was the greatest suffering and shame ever endured by any human being, because God poured out his righteous wrath on him as he carried all the sins of his people all the way to the cross. He was despised and rejected by sinful men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

And yet, he himself despised his shame and suffering, paying no attention to them, because he was focused on the joy that was set before him at the finish line of his sorrowful race. He was so focused on his race that he did not shrink from looking death in the face when he was tried by Pilate,  “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness [martyreo] to the truth” (John 18:37). Thus, Paul exhorts all Christians to fight the good fight of faith as Christ Jesus did when he “testified [martureo] before Pontius Pilate the good confession” (1 Tim 6:13). This is why John calls him “the faithful and true witness [martus]after he completed his mission (Rev 3:14; cf Rev 1:5).

When we prepare and discipline our body for a race, we do not look forward to a nice, comfortable, easy race. We prepare to run with endurance the race that is set before us. In contrast, when Jesus came down to earth, he looked past the shame and suffering on the cross, because he looked at the joy that awaited him after he finishes his race. This joy is that “he will see his offspring”—the multitudes of people that will be accounted righteous on his account. He will “prolong his days” into eternity after his resurrection. And he will reign from God’s right hand, executing God’s judgments, so that “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isa 53:10).

Beloved friends, consider Christ, who endured his shame and suffering for the joy and glory set before him. As he was faithful to the work that his Father set before him, may you also bear faithful witness to his gospel by the good fruits of his Spirit in your lives.

And like Christ, consider the joy and glory set before you when you finish the long and difficult race that God has set before you. Because Christ is the author and finisher of your faith, be assured that he will complete the good work he has begun in you.

And at the finish line, a laurel branch of honor and glory—the crown of righteousness—awaits you. At the end of your pilgrimage, Jesus himself will welcome you there, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.” The great cloud of witnesses waiting for your finishing sprint from ages back, together with all the heavenly host, will also burst into celebration, saying, “Welcome home, faithful friend!”

This is Christ’s promise to all of you running the race to eternal life, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21).

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