Where to focus our gaze

“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 12:1–2 ESV)

The author of Hebrews starts chapter 12 with “therefore,” which should always cause to look at what was previously said. In chapter 11, he expanded on how those who went before us walked in faith (trust) in God and not in their own striving, morality or abilities. In light of the fact that those who went before us did not have complete revelation of God’s redemptive plan, but leaned on faith, how much more should we? They endured incredibly difficult things – even death, sustained by a hope that something better was ahead. This “cloud of witnesses” evokes images of the faithful watching us as if in an arena. The image is of the faithful saints watching – and cheering us on – as we run this same race that they have already run.

The call is to look backwards at those who have gone before us as encouragement and then set our sights upward on Jesus and run with endurance. Our part is to root out those things which slow us down – weight & sin. Just like running with a weight is inefficient, so is trying to run this race of faith with a multi-focused mind encumbered with sin and other things. It is interesting that the author separates sin from other things, denoted by weight. It is true that sin encumbers us in our race of faith, but so do many of the morally neutral – or even morally good – things that hold too much affection in our hearts as they border on becoming objects of our worship. Things like our kids, spiritual service, marriage, hobbies or a desire for deep & meaningful relationships.

John Calvin expands on this thought as he defines weight as whatever impedes our progress in this race: “Now there are various burdens which delay and impede our spiritual course, such as the love of this present life, the pleasures of the world, the lusts of the flesh, worldly cares, riches also and honors, and other things of this kind.” This is a significant concept; apparently, there are a number of things which are not sinful that do impede our progress on this journey – unhealthy affection or focus on news, hobbies, sports, pop culture, job, worldly wealth, politics, relationships, family, church trends, and countless others. Let us see these for what they are: fleeting and temporary, meant for our enjoyment, but not as the object worthy of our full weight of worship. Matthew Henry says it like this: “Every weight, that is, all inordinate affection and concern for the body, and the present life and world. Inordinate care for the present life, or fondness for it, is a dead weight upon the soul, that pulls it down when it should ascend upwards, and pulls it back when it should press forward; it makes duty and difficulties harder and heavier than they would be.” This is a continued call to remain faithful, to endure hardship, to persevere – a common theme in Hebrews.

How do we do this? We look to Jesus. This is not some abstract, ethereal instruction – or some trite command. No, this is indeed the full weight of the gospel. He is the FOUNDER and PERFECTER of our faith. Faith starts and ends with God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews does not stop there: the secret to jettisoning all that impedes our progress on this journey of faith is found in a deeper relationship with Jesus – it is in an ever increasing understanding of who God is, what He has done on our behalf and a recognition that we deserve nothing from Him – except His just wrath. And let us not forget what motivated the risen Christ – JOY. What!? What joy is there in bearing the just wrath of the Almighty on behalf of the elect – who rarely, if ever, fully appreciate the sacrifice offered on their behalf? The joy that drove Jesus was a redeemed people and a redeemed creation that would glorify God as originally designed. This is a foretaste of God making all things new. This joy drove Him to endure the horrific suffering, spiritual pain, and humiliation doled out to Him on the cross. But let us never forget that He overcame – that the grave could not hold him – that He now is seated on the throne in heaven, where He rules and reigns. Let His joy become our Joy. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and remember what He endured on our behalf and strive to see & appreciate how a holy, sovereign, just God would make a way for a rebellious, treasonous and ungrateful people; just tasting this will undoubtedly produce worship – and endurance to run the race.