A number of years ago, Sueanne and I lived in Boone and we absolutely loved it there because we enjoy the mountains so much. There was one place that was a particular favorite spot for us to visit – Grandfather Mountain. It’s one of the tallest mountains in that area, rising over a mile above sea level which means that it provides a beautiful view in all directions.
One Wednesday night, as we were leaving the church building after Bible class, one of the members asked me if I wanted to go up Grandfather Mountain with him the next day. I was considering taking him up on that offer until I realized that he wasn’t talking about driving up Grandfather Mountain – he was talking about running up it.
Every year, they have a race called the Bear Climb. It starts at the base of Grandfather Mountain and it ends at the very top, a distance of five miles of running – all uphill. So, I very respectfully declined his offer to join him.
Over the course of my life, I think I have only joined one race, and it’s the race described in Hebrews 12:1-2. “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.”
The Hebrew writer makes several points about this race that we are running. In the first verse, he describes the stands that are full of spectators who are there to encourage us. And then we’re told that we need to get rid of anything that might slow us down, and we need to hang in there when the going gets tough.
But, this morning, I want us to focus on verse two, because this is where the Holy Spirit tells us what to focus on. Or, to be more specific, the Holy Spirit tells us who to focus on. We’re told to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
I wish I could tell you an inspirational story about a time I won a race, but I’ve never been very athletic, and I certainly have never been mistaken for a fast runner. So instead, I’m going to tell you about an actual inspirational runner. His name was Glenn Cunningham.
When he was seven years old, Glenn and his brother Floyd were badly injured in an explosion. Floyd died from his injuries. And Glenn’s legs were so badly burned that his doctor wanted to amputate them. He lost all the toes on his left foot, and suffered extensive muscle and ligament damage.
Glenn’s parents refused to let the doctor amputate, even though he warned them that their son would probably never walk normally again. That happened in 1917. It took two years before Glenn was able to walk again. Eventually, he was able to run.
And, years later, in 1932 and 1936, Glenn Cunningham represented the United States in the Summer Olympic Games. Over the course of his career, Cunningham set a world record for running the mile, just over four minutes. He also set the world record for the 800 meters.
There are some preachers who would point to Glenn Cunningham’s great determination and effort, to encourage you all to greater spiritual discipline as you run your Christian race.
And they would say something like this: “If Glenn Cunningham could set world records with his burnt up legs and missing toes — then what’s your excuse? Get out there, work harder, read your Bible and pray more, be more diligent, and get busy running.”
But that’s not what I’m going to do this morning. It’s possible that a nice inspirational story like that would motivate you to try harder and do more for God, but I’m not so sure. My guess is you’ve already heard plenty of sermons about putting more effort into your spiritual growth.
And I suspect that your relationship with preachers is probably a bit like your relationship with dentists. Let’s be honest. Your dentist has been telling you that you need to floss ever since you were seven years old, and some of you still don’t do it. You may have had every good intention of flossing, especially after each dentist visit. But those good intentions don’t last for long.
And it’s been my experience over the years that some people listen to their preacher about as well as they listen to their dentist. And while they may leave worship with every intention of making serious changes in their life, most of those intentions rarely make it more than a week or so. Even when the preacher includes a pep talk about some inspirational person like Glenn Cunningham.
So, instead, this morning, I want us to see that we’re all Glenn Cunningham when it comes to running the Christian race. And I don’t mean Glenn Cunningham while he’s winning Olympic medals and setting world records.
I mean Glenn Cunningham in 1919, when he was just learning to walk again. Or when he made his first feeble attempts at running. Because while there are may be some of us who may be champions of faith, there are others of us who are still struggling in our Christian walk. We’re all running this race at different speeds. But that’s OK, because the point isn’t to compare ourselves with all the other runners.
And all of us are like Glenn Cunningham because we’ve all been burned — by sin. All of us have been burned by our own sins, and many of us have been burned by the sins of others. And we all have some deep scars in our lives because of it.
And now we find ourselves taking part in this great race of faith. When there were perhaps some people in our lives who said we’d never be able to do it. And they gave up on us long ago.
But I want you to understand this morning that the only way that any of us are able to limp or walk or run or even be in the race at all is not due to our own efforts, but by fixing our eyes on Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
As we look at these two verses, I want us to remember the big picture here. This passage pictures Christians running an Olympic style race in a great Coliseum. Verse one begins by telling us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” as we run this race.
These “witnesses” are all those people who were listed in Hebrews chapter 11. And the point of calling those great men and women “witnesses” is not so much to say that they are watching us, but to say that they are near enough for us to watch them. They are not so much witnesses of our race, but witnesses of how the race can be run in faith. As we run, we look out into the crowd and we realize that every single one of them finished the race, and we are reminded, “It can be done.”
Hebrews 11 is often referred to as the Old Testament “Hall of Faith”. Men and women like Noah and Abraham, Sarah and Rahab, Samson and King David. Not to mention all of the thousands of saints whose names we don’t know, who quietly persevered in faith.
They’re witnesses because every single one of their lives bears witness to a life of faith. According to Hebrews 11:13 (NIV), “All these people were still living by faith when they died.” They all died with their eyes fixed on Jesus — even though they couldn’t see him as clearly as we can today.
These are not the men and women who are running with you. These are the men and women who have already finished their race, and they’ve gone on to their reward. And now they’re here to cheer you on.
They’re not here to judge your performance. Even though they may be gold medalists in the Hall of Faith. You don’t need to feel nervous that they might be disgusted by your scars or your limp. Because they all know what it’s like to run with scars and pain, because that’s the only way that anyone who has ever run this race has run it.
We look at them and see examples of faith and perseverance under every imaginable circumstance:
- there’s Abraham who lied twice about Sarah being his wife, but he finished the race.
- there’s David who committed adultery and murder, and he finished;
- there’s Rahab, who was a prostitute, and she finished.
- there’s John the Baptist, with his strange diet and bizarre wardrobe, and he finished;
- there’s John Mark the quitter, who ran away when Jesus was arrested, and he finished;
- there’s Jacob who took advantage of his brother and deceived his father, and he finished.
- and Job who suffered so much over the course of his life, and he finished.
The common thread that runs through all of these stories is the fact that these men and women refused to give up on God. They all endured great difficulties and yet they never gave up on their faith.
And I’m sure that you could all name some other witnesses in your own life, men and women who have inspired you over the years. Maybe you can picture them now. You saw how they ran the Christian race. You saw how they finished. You know that they have received their eternal reward.
And now, there’s a whole crowd of other runners surrounding us, running the race along with us. Some of them might be a little faster, some a little slower. Some a little weaker, some a little stronger. But we’re not in a competition with each other. We’re all just running toward Jesus, who stands at the finish line.
And all of these other runners — these other Christians — are here to encourage you. God has placed us together on this racecourse to “spur one another on toward love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). But our focus is not on the other runners. And we shouldn’t compare the race that we’re running with theirs.
And we’re not supposed to fix our eyes on that great cloud of witnesses in the stands, either. Don’t make the mistake of saying, “Oh, if only I could run like Abraham or David!” No — they would be the first to tell you, you wouldn’t want to run with their scars, or with their limp.
We focus on running our own race. And Hebrews 12 tells us how we should run. It says, at the end of verse one, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance…”
Lay aside every weight. You’re never going to see a marathon runner running who’s carrying a 50-pound sack of flour. The whole idea is absurd. We understand that when you run a race, you travel light. And in the Christian race, we need to get rid of anything that’s going to slow us down, especially the sin that’s in our lives, that can get us tangled and trip us up.
I’ll get back to that thought shortly, but that’s not where the Hebrew writer tells us to focus our attention. He doesn’t tell us to concentrate on our sins and our shortcomings. He just tells us to cast them off, to get rid of them.
Now, I may not be a skilled runner, but I know this much. It’s important to keep your gaze focused while you’re running, so that you’re not distracted. And so, the Hebrew writer tells us where to fix our gaze while we’re running our race of faith. He tells us to run ““looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
Don’t fix your eyes on the witnesses in the stands. Don’t fix your eyes on the other runners around you. And don’t fix your eyes on your own sins. He says to fix your eyes on Jesus.
But what exactly does that mean? It means to look away from your sin and all the things that may distract you, and lock your eyes firmly on Jesus. Remember when the apostle Peter walked on the water with Jesus? As long as he kept his gaze focused on Jesus, he was fine. But as soon as he looked away from Jesus, and focused on the wind and the waves around him, he began to sink.
And, of course, Jesus grabbed Peter out of the water when he fell. And Jesus will always pick us up again when we fall. But we’ll fall a lot less, and it will hurt a lot less, the more we keep our eyes fixed on him. And when Jesus picks us up, he’ll remind us that we should have kept our eyes on him. Not at how the guy beside us was running. Not at our own scars and pain. Not at the scenery all around us.
But on Jesus, “who is the founder and perfecter of our faith.” But what exactly does that mean? Some of the older translations say that Jesus is “the author and finisher of our faith”. It means that Jesus is the beginning and the end of our faith.
There are a couple of ways to understand this phrase. And I think they’re both correct. First, think again about all those Old Testament heroes of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. That great cloud of witnesses in the stands, watching us race, cheering us on with their examples of relentless, persevering faith.
We’re told that “All these people were still living by faith when they died.” (Hebrews 11:13, NIV). They lived and died looking forward to the promises of God, believing that those promises would one day be fulfilled. They lived and died with their eyes fixed on Jesus. They trusted God’s promises about Jesus. Jesus was the beginning and the end of their faith.
And you could say that Jesus is the beginning and the end of what faith is supposed to look like in our lives. Jesus is the only person who ever set out to run the race of faith, and never once wavered and never once fell. By faith, he was perfectly obedient.
Jesus is the only perfect example of faith. He never doubted, and he never sinned. Not even when he was rejected, abandoned, abused, and even killed. At the end of verse two, the Hebrew writer says, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame.”
For the joy that was set before him. Jesus’ greatest joy was saving us forever. But he had to endure the shameful death of the cross — naked and bleeding and humiliated — to see that joy come about. The only way his joy could be fulfilled was through the cross. He endured it all by faith. A perfect, unwavering faith that all of God’s promises would be fulfilled in him.
And that’s why we look to him as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus — who is now alive, and seated at the right hand of God — is the perfect example of how God rewards faith.
And, like Jesus, we also run because of the joy that is set before us. We understand that running itself is not always easy. It can be long and tiring, sometimes even painful. But we know that there’s something at the end of this race that makes it worth it all.
And so, as we run, we look to Jesus. We keep going, even with our scars and the pain, because by faith we see that Jesus himself is the joy that is set before us. Our joy will be made complete when we get to be with him forever.
So that’s the first reason that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Because his life and his death is the perfect example of what it means to live by faith.
But I think there’s a second reason. You see, Jesus is not only the example for our faith. He’s also the one who supplies the strength we need that allows us to follow his example — even though we may follow with a limp.
So, when it says that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, it’s because he’s the one who strengthens our faith. Philippians 1:6 says that we can be “sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Jude closes out his letter with this beautiful benediction: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)
Jesus is the one who keeps us from stumbling. Jesus is the one who presents us blameless. And that’s why we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s the only reason we’re in this race to begin with. He’s the only reason our scarred, feeble legs can move at all. And he’s the one who will be there at the finish line, to embrace us, to welcome us, and to crown us with eternal life.
So, let’s back up now to verse one. The Hebrew writer tells us that, because we’re running this serious race, “let us also lay aside every weight [Everything that hinders us], and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Everything that hinders us is whatever distracts us from Jesus while we run. For you that might be … I don’t know … anything from being obsessed with politics, to finding your value in your appearance, or being worried about what other people think about you. It might be something that you spend your money on, or something you spend your time doing. It can be anything that distracts us and takes our eyes off Jesus.
The writer here tells us to lay it aside, to cast it off. And especially throw off “the sin that clings so closely”. The way we do that is to confess it, and repent of it. Because we know that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
Throwing off everything that hinders us and the sin that entangles us is not just something we do one time. It’s something we do every day. And we run with perseverance the race that’s been laid out for us, which means that even when we stumble and fall, which we sometimes will, we don’t give up.
Running with perseverance means continuing even when everything in you wants to slow down or give up. The race that the Hebrew writer is describing here is not a 50-yard dash. It’s not even a mile race. It’s more like a marathon. It will take you your whole life to finish this race.
And when you get discouraged, remember that great cloud of witnesses in the stands—who once ran this race themselves. Like you, they also ran the race of faith on burned feet, marred by sin. Jesus gave them the strength to continue, and he will give you the strength, too.
Run with your eyes focused not on your scars or your limp, but fixed on Jesus. On his perfection. On his righteousness. On his mercy and love. On his ability to hold you up. Because that’s what will sustain your faith as you run.
Because when you fix your eyes on Jesus, you’ll see that he is source of your righteousness and holiness before God. And that will hold true, no matter how much you’re struggling.
When you fix your eyes on Jesus, you’ll see that his love — his love that endured the cross for your sake — is not going anywhere. His love for you is unshaken by your scarred and feeble legs. His perfection covers your imperfections.
When you fix your eyes on Jesus, you’ll see that his mercy towards you is unchanged. When sin and sorrow and suffering has hurt you and crippled you — his mercy only grows deeper.
He’s always there — the pioneer and perfecter of your faith — sustaining you with his own Spirit, encouraging you with the eternal joy you will have with him when you’ve endured this race.
And you’ll find that, when you reach the finish line —just like Glenn Cunningham – you’ll gain something better than some Olympic medals. But you’ll know you didn’t win them because your legs were so strong. It was Jesus who gave you the strength. And Jesus, who is the perfecter of our faith will gladly share his victory with all those who run with faith in him.
I mentioned earlier the story of Peter and Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walks out to meet the disciples in their boat in the middle of the lake. They’re terrified. But Peter calls out and believes. Then, despite the apparent danger, Peter steps out of the boat. Peter walks on the water. Can you imagine what faith it must have taken to take that first step? The swirling winds whipping at your clothes; the tumultuous sea churning around you.
And you can just imagine the disciples’ reaction, “Peter, get back in the boat! What are you doing? It’s dangerous out there. Don’t be foolish. Get back here!” There will always be someone who will try to hold us back when God commands us to follow him. Perhaps you can think of some people who have tried to hold you back. People who have discouraged you from doing what you knew was right, what you knew God wanted, where you believed God was calling you to do.
But Peter didn’t get back in the boat. Peter walked on the water. And he kept his eyes fixed firmly on Jesus. As soon as he looked away, he sank. But as long as Peter fixed his eyes on Jesus, he was able to walk on water.
Like Peter, we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Jesus, so that we don’t grow weary and lose heart. Fix your eyes upon Jesus, and run with perseverance the race that’s been laid out for you.