Making the Interpretive Journey
In the previous section we reviewed the five basic steps of the Interpretive Journey, steps that are essential for understanding and applying New Testament letters. If you are like most people, you need an example to go along with the explanation. In this section we want to take Hebrews 12:1–2 through the five steps of the Interpretive Journey. We hope this will clarify what you need to do when interpreting a letter in the New Testament.
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
As you read Hebrews from start to finish, you will notice a rather serious tone as God speaks powerfully through the author about the cost of discipleship. The book actually reads more like a sermon and even admits to being a “word of exhortation” (13:22). You may also notice a central focus on Jesus Christ along with an extensive use of the Old Testament. When you consult the study tools to reconstruct the historical-cultural situation, you can easily see why Hebrews sounds a note of urgency.
The believers addressed by Hebrews probably came out of a Jewish background and formed a house church or a group of churches in or near Rome. The letter was likely written during the mid-60s AD, just prior to a period of severe persecution under Emperor Nero. A small band of believers was facing the temptation to reject Christianity and return to Judaism in order to have an easier time of life. They were discouraged and appear to have been wavering in their commitment to Christ. No one knows for sure who wrote Hebrews, but the author’s purpose seems clear enough. He writes “to encourage a group of discouraged believers drifting away from real Christianity by bolstering their commitment to draw near to God and to endure in commitment to Christ.” The book is filled with instruction about the superiority of Jesus Christ and warnings to persevere in faith.
The next step toward grasping the original meaning of Hebrews 12:1–2 is to identify its literary context. How does the author’s thought run through this section of the letter/sermon? The word “therefore” in 12:1 shows us that our passage is closely connected to the preceding unit. Hebrews 11—often called the great “Hall of Faith”—presents example after example of how the saints of old persevered in faith. In Hebrews 12:1–2 the author/preacher uses the image of a race and the example of Jesus himself to exhort his audience to endure in faith. In the paragraph that follows (12:3–11), the author/preacher uses the analogy of a parent’s love for a child to explain why believers should embrace hardships as expressions of God’s love. The theme of enduring difficult times binds these sections together.
After we come to grips with the context of the passage and before we summarize what the passage meant to the first-century audience, we need to observe the text carefully. It says that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” referring to the examples of faith listed in Hebrews 11. These models of faithfulness offer much-needed encouragement for the struggling house church(es). Knowing that many people have already walked the path of hardship and found God faithful, the biblical audience is called (1) to “throw off” what hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, (2) to run the race with perseverance, and (3) to fix their eyes on Jesus, the ultimate example of faith.
The author uses the image of a race to illustrate the nature of the Christian life. This image governs how we should understand many of the key words and expressions in this passage. Running this kind of race requires both effort and endurance and suggests that the author has in mind a long-distance race such as a marathon rather than a short sprint. About the need for runners to “throw off everything that hinders,” Keener writes:
“Laying aside weights” (KJV) may refer to removing artificial weights used in training but not in races, but more likely it refers to the Greek custom of stripping off clothes to run unencumbered. The image would represent anything that would hinder his readers from winning their race.
Runners are also challenged to run a race that is “marked out” or set before them, meaning that they must put their faith into action by making the right choices even though such choices may prove difficult. Yet those who run the race do not run in their strength alone. That is, in part, why they are urged to fix their eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Guthrie notes that the word translated “author” can communicate the idea of “champion, leader, forerunner, or initiator.” Both “champion” and “forerunner” fit the race imagery and, when paired with the idea of “perfecting,” the word teaches that Jesus “has cleared the path of faith so that we may run it. The way is open, and although hurdles exist, the roadblocks have been removed.”
Jesus not only stands as the ultimate example of endurance, he also inspires endurance in those who follow because he himself focused on the reward that lay beyond the immediate obstacle of suffering. The future joy set before Jesus enabled him to endure the cross. Even more, he “scorned” the shame of the cross or considered it insignificant in comparison to the promised rewards to come. Having endured, he then “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We can now summarize the meaning of Hebrews 12:1–2 for the biblical audience in the following way: The author of Hebrews uses the image of a long-distance race to challenge his audience to persevere in their commitment to Christ in spite of opposition. Rather than drifting away from Christ and reverting to Judaism, they need to run the race with endurance. For inspiration and encouragement, they should consider the scores of faithful saints who have already endured in faith. They are urged especially to focus on Jesus himself, the ultimate example of perseverance under pressure, rather than on the immediate circumstance of difficulty.
Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
As with most situations in the letters, the river separating the biblical audience and us is not wide. As Christians living after the death and resurrection of Christ in the midst of a hostile world, we too find ourselves in a long-distance race struggling to endure. We have a wealth of faithful examples who have gone before, and we must look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
There are, however, a few differences we must be aware of when interpreting this passage. Many of us do not face the same level of persecution confronting the original audience. We will have to familiarize ourselves with the suffering church in other parts of the world in order to feel the full impact of the challenge to endure. In addition, most of us are not tempted to revert to Judaism in order to avoid such opposition. But there will certainly be religious practices or groups that the world considers “acceptable” and to which Christians are tempted to turn for “safety” from trouble. These can serve as helpful parallels.
Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What are the theological principles in this text?
We find at least three central theological principles in Hebrews 12:1–2:
- The Christian life is like a difficult long-distance race, which requires both effort and endurance.
- The saints who have gone before supply us with valuable examples of endurance. We should look to them for inspiration and encouragement.
- To run the race successfully, we need to reject things in life that hinder our progress and, most importantly, focus on Jesus and our relationship with him.
Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
When you look at the three theological principles above, they all seem to fit well with the rest of Scripture. They are general enough not to contradict the clear teaching of the rest of the Bible. This will often be the case with principles from New Testament letters.
Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
To illustrate the application step, let’s use the first of the three theological principles mentioned above: “The Christian life is like a difficult long-distance race, which requires both effort and endurance.” As we seek to grasp the text in our town, we must look for key elements that are present in the intersection between the theological principle and the original situation. In this case, we find several important elements:
- The runners are Christians and the race is life itself.
- The race is difficult, and we are tempted to take an easier route or even quit.
- Running a successful race requires both effort and endurance.
We continue the process by searching for a contemporary situation that contains all the key elements. Since the key elements in this case are more general, it will be easy to find a parallel situation. Any Christian who is tempted to give up because of the difficulty of staying faithful to Christ will need to be reminded that the race demands effort and endurance. To fully grasp the text in our town, we need to make our application specific.
In other parts of Scripture, the emphasis falls on the grace that God gives. This passage, however, stresses how we should respond to God’s grace. We must realize that life is not a sprint. Our instantaneous society does not view endurance as a virtue, but God calls us to lay aside impatience and to persevere. He wants us to remain steadfast under pressure and to stay the course. To run successfully means making the right choices today and the next day and the next week, month, year, and so on. God calls us to hang in there over the long haul.
In our teaching ministries occasionally we encounter Christian students who have come out of difficult, non-Christian home situations. They come to Ouachita, a Christian liberal arts university, and end up in our classes. Over the course of the semester we get to know them and some of what they are dealing with in life. They feel guilty and angry about their parents‘ divorce, if they even know their parents. Some have suffered verbal or physical abuse. Others are struggling financially because of lack of support. Nearly all of them have been wounded emotionally and continue to carry a lot of baggage. But these students are committed to the Lord and are running the race faithfully. We pray for them and love them and encourage them to endure. They know by experience that running a successful race means choosing Christ even when ridiculed, excluded, or treated unjustly. Running with endurance means staying on our feet and fixing our gaze on Christ even if we feel exhausted and depleted and stressed to the breaking point. The race is not a sprint but a marathon. To endure is to win.