POSTED 11 FEBRUARY, 2018
reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume II
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Yeshua, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Hebrews ch. 12 shifts the scene, from speaking of figures from Israel’s past, seen previously in ch. 11, to our author now discussing his audience’s present experience. The author of Hebrews will be exhorting his readers and listeners on the theme of discipline, and will ask them to consider the sufferings of Yeshua on their behalf. Lane makes the important point, “The Greek text exhibits elegant, genuinely oratorical word order, sonorous instances of effective word play, the use of alliteration, and carefully balanced clauses…These stylistic and linguistic features display a concern for rhetorical effect…The result is lively and animated discourse.” As you will likely see, there is a great deal of material that readers get to consider.
Hebrews’ audience is first admonished, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1, NIV). It is notable that our writer does not employ the term nephelē, often referring to a single “cloud,” but instead nephos, “a cloud, mass or pile of clouds” (LS), which is synonymous to “host” (WBC). Lane states, “The metaphorical use of the word ne,foj, ‘cloud,’ to describe a crowded group of people is a common classical figure.”
The cloud of witnesses may be compared to spectators in the stands at an athletic competition. This group of witnesses composes “testifiers” of God’s power and work in the lives of His people, and how their example of faith should surround those seeking to be faithful. There may be some parallels between what is seen in Hebrews ch. 12 about Believers in Yeshua being admonished to endure on the path of faith, and the example of the Maccabean martyrs in 4 Maccabees 17:10-24, which may be summarized as, “Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life…The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators…The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live through blessed eternity” (4 Maccabees 17:11-12, 14, 17-18).
Concerning these verses from 4 Maccabees, Bruce makes the poignant remark, “there are several echoes in the present context of our epistle. The martyrs contend in a context in which the pagan king is their antagonist; and true religion wins the victory by their endurance; the universe and the whole race of mankind are the spectators, while Virtue occupies the president’s box. The prize with which the martyrs are crowned is eternal life.” This is not only the basic story of the Maccabean martyrs, but also of many who have had to endure persecution, and even death, for the faith.
Considering the testimony of those who have gone on, our author can then tell his audience, “we must throw off every encumbrance, every sin to which we cling, and run with resolution the race for which we are entered” (Hebrews 12:1, NEB). A few examiners have suggested that he is actually telling First Century Jewish Believers to throw away a life of Torah obedience, but if this were the case, then why would he likewise possibly be referring to 4 Maccabees—anything but an anti-Torah text? deSilva points out that 4 Maccabees “promotes an ongoing commitment to Jewish values…by claiming that Torah is the best teacher of the virtues prized even by the Greco-Roman world.” If the author of Hebrews is appropriating these ideas, then he uses them in the context of describing, to primarily a Jewish, but also a non-Jewish, audience, the critical need to endure with God because the world is watching.
Using an athletic theme as his frame of reference, the author says in Hebrews 12:1 to throw off every “weight” (KJV, RSV). The Greek ogkos simply means “bulk, size, mass,” but could also refer “metaph. [to] weight, trouble” (LS). As an athlete trained for a marathon in ancient times, he would make sure that he would shed any excess weight that would impede proper performance. Morris indicates, “Athletes carried nothing with them in a race…and the writer is suggesting that the Christian should ‘travel light.’” Spiritually, Believers are admonished to remove what The Message paraphrases as “spiritual fat.” This would require Messiah followers, being trained up in Him, to remove superfluous things that hinder their ability to compete in the race of life. Take important note of the fact that the author of Hebrews links the pronoun “we” to his readers; he is competing along with them in this race and does not remove himself from the training.
It is notable that a few, in our Messianic faith community, might consider the allusion by our author to athletic contests to be full of “Hellenistic paganism.” Historically, it is true that there were often pagan rituals involved in Greek games, and many of the athletes even competed naked (1 Maccabees 1:10-15). However, to assert that our author is appealing to these practices is a bit much, as he only uses the concept of a race in a general sense to appeal to the human experience. Appealing to athletic competition also appears to be common throughout Diaspora Judaism of the First Century. Lane informs us, “The frequency with which it occurs in hellenistic-Jewish sources, especially Philo and 4 Maccabees, suggests that it was a commonplace in synagogue preaching throughout the Greek-speaking Diaspora.” In fact, the allusion to athletic contexts similar to what we see in the Roman world are made several times in the Midrashim:
“VOICE OF THY BROTHERS BLOOD CRIETH UNTO ME FROM THE GROUND. R. Judan, R. Huna, and the Rabbis each commented. R. Judan said: It is not written, ‘Thy brother’s blood’ (dam-singular), but ‘Thy brother’s bloods’ (deme-plural): i.e. his blood and the blood of his descendants. R. Huna observed: It is not written, ‘Surely I have seen yesterday the blood (dam) of Naboth, and the blood (dam) of his sons,’ but, ‘Surely I have seen yesterday the bloods (deme) of Naboth, and the bloods (deme) of his sons’ (II Kings IX, 26), which means, his blood and the blood of his descendants. The Rabbis said: It is not written, ‘His own servants conspired against him for the blood (dam) of the sons of Jehoiada,’ but,…‘For the bloods of (deme) the sons of Johoiada’ (II Chron. XXIV, 25), namely, his blood and the blood of his descendants. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: It is difficult to say this thing, and the mouth cannot utter it plainly. Think of two athletes wrestling before the king; had the king wished, he could have separated them. But he did not so desire, and one overcame the other and killed him, he [the victim] crying out [before he died], ‘Let my cause be pleaded before the king!’ Even so, THE VOICE OF THY BROTHER’S BLOOD CRIES OUT AGAINST ME. It [the blood] could not ascend above, because the soul had not yet ascended thither; nor could it go below, because no man had yet been buried there; hence the blood lay spattered on the trees and the stones” (Genesis Rabbah 22:9).
“[F]or the wealth I had, how could I have built all this country for my glory?’—for it says, The king spoke and said: Is not this great Babylon, etc. (ib.27). ‘Now if I squander all my wealth, there will be no glory left me.’ So he locked his coffers. When he said this, a voice from heaven answered him, as it says, While the word was in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven (ib. 28). What enabled him to dwell securely for twelve months? Charity. Well, if this is what it does for the wicked, then how much more does it do for Israel? Hence ’ Keep ye justice and do righteousness’ (Isa. LVI, 1). It is like a man who came to a city where he heard that a gladiatorial exhibition was about to be held.’ He asked a gladiator, ‘When will the show take place?’ He replied: ‘It is far off yet.’ Then he asked the one who was to give the show and he replied: ‘Soon.’ He then said: ‘Did I not ask the gladiator this, yet he said, “It is far off”?’ He replied: ‘Is this your sense, to ask the gladiator? Is he then anxious for me to stage the gladiatorial exhibition, knowing as he does that he may be slain when he descends into the arena?’ Similarly, when Israel asked Balaam: ‘When will salvation come?’ He replied: ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh’ (Num. XXIV, 17). Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them’” (Exodus Rabbah 30:24).
Both of these quotations should reveal that the author of Hebrews did not go beyond Jewish cultural norms of the broad First Century. Competition is a theme that anyone should be able to easily identify with.
What is most important for readers to keep in mind is what the “race” of life actually involves. The Greek term employed in Hebrews 12:1 is agōn, which is “gener. a struggle against opposition, struggle, fight” (BDAG). It is by no coincidence that this is the root for our English word “agony,” because the life of faith is often something that involves pain. It is difficult to separate our author’s usage of agōn as “race” from the varied usages that Paul employs, including: “conflict” (Philippians 1:30), “struggle” (Colossians 2:1), “opposition” (1 Thessalonians 2:2), and “fight” (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7). deSilva observes that a theme being emphasized in the “race” metaphor is that “a person willingly chose to endure physical discomfort, to submit to the reproaches of a trainer, to curb luxury, and to turn aside from many delights enjoyed by the nonathlete or the fully participating member of the dominant culture.” The same should be easily said of anyone who chooses to follow Yeshua the Messiah. The call to “run with perseverance” (NIV) is common throughout the Apostolic Scriptures, and those who run the marathon of faith must continually see that they are able to perform well.
Hebrews 12:2 begins with the words aphorōntes eis, “looking (in)to,” as the author of Hebrews places a high priority on this audience focusing their attention upon Yeshua. Guthrie says that it “implies a definite looking away from others and directing one’s gaze towards Jesus. It suggests the impossibility of looking in two directions at once.” Understanding Yeshua the Messiah as the center of faith is a theme that can never be overstated. Hegg makes the valid point, “The word translated ‘fixing our eyes’ or ‘looking’ is a present participle, emphasizing that this is a constant action, not something done once. Our constant attention and focus as we run is upon Yeshua.” Do we as Messianics ever make the mistake of taking our attention off Yeshua?
The need to always look to God is a theme that is present all the way at the beginning of Genesis, but in Hebrews 12:2 is probably influenced by the example of the Maccabean martyrs. They looked to God and endured tortures to the point of death:
“O mother, who with your seven sons nullified the violence of the tyrant, frustrated his evil designs, and showed the courage of your faith!…Here lie buried an aged priest and an aged woman and seven sons, because of the violence of the tyrant who wished to destroy the way of life of the Hebrews…Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended” (4 Maccabees 17:2, 9, 13).
This fits very well with our author’s description of Yeshua as “the pioneer” (NRSV) or “the founder” (ESV) of faith, “who, in exchange for obtaining the joy set before him, endured execution on a stake as a criminal, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, CJB/CJSB). Yeshua, as the Leader and as the example His followers are to emulate, endured the hardships that His experiences on Earth dealt Him—to the point of dying on the tree. Now He has been exalted at the right hand of His Father in Heaven. But Yeshua is not only the example for those who live after His death and resurrection; He is the example par excellence even for people who endured hardships before His First Coming. As Bruce observes, “Our author’s answer might well be that they did not really go before him; he went before them as truly as he has gone before us,” notably as it was “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5, ESV).
Yeshua the Messiah, in His humanity, is the perfect embodiment of faith that His followers are to emulate when they face difficult circumstances. He is represented by the author of Hebrews as the teleiōtēs, “one who brings someth. to a successful conclusion, perfecter” (BDAG). Partaking of the human experience, Quanbeck points out that He “needed the utmost of courage and stamina for his strenuous ministry. He has broken the trail for us, and he also enables us to follow his path. His mission in life required great personal effort. He needed motivation, even as we do. His motivation was the joy of doing God’s will.” As our author has already stated, “Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:7, NIV; cf. Psalm 40:7-8). Such obedience to the Father not only involved keeping His Law, but most notably being humiliated and unjustly executed.
Keep in mind how to the Romans, the cross (Grk. stauros) was a sign of great shame. The Senator Cicero would write, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears” (Pro Rabirio 5). Yeshua the Messiah died as though He were a common criminal, and endured something that was considered to be a complete curse to almost all outsiders. deSilva notes, “The form of execution called crucifixion was calculated to leave the victim utterly stripped of dignity and worth in the eyes of the world. It was the vilest, most degrading death possible, as the crucified was hung up before all the world precisely as an example of how not to act.”
It boggles the human mind how such suffering and death can be considered a joy, yet Yeshua as the example emulated joy in His sufferings. He prayed, “these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13). After being executed and resurrected, He was exalted to the right hand of His Father, a theme our author has already touched (Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12). Yeshua promises to share His authority with those who endure on Earth and overcome life’s temptations, as He promised the assembly at Laodicea, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Revelation 3:21). Ellingworth summarizes it quite well: “the author wishes to end his period with an emphatic affirmation of the permanent triumph of Christ, and thus perhaps by implication of the permanent effects of that triumph for believers.”
The author of Hebrews asks his audience, some of whom may be teetering on denying the Lord, “Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up” (Hebrews 12:3, NLT). The implications of the verb analogizomai are severe, as it can mean “to reckon up, sum up” or “to calculate, consider” (LS). He is, in essence, asking his audience to calculate the cost of believing in Yeshua, wanting them to understand that the momentary loss of comfort, status, or even rights on Earth is far outweighed by the future rewards they will experience in glory. Again, the theme of present suffering being outweighed by future restoration in God’s Kingdom is a common one seen throughout the Apostolic Scriptures. Yeshua endured unbelievable suffering for fallen humanity, most of which only a few of Hebrews’ audience had to even partially experience. Yeshua’s tenacity in enduring hardships is the perfect embodiment of Isaiah 40:28-31:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
While Yeshua the Messiah is represented as Divine as depicted in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3-4, 6, 8-11), we need not limit our approach of the Messiah to exclusively this. While Yeshua is God, He is also the ultimate human being, being the example for redeemed men and women to follow. If we are able to truly count the cost of believing in Him, He will share His authority as the reigning King with us.
 William L. Lane, Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Nashville: Nelson Reference and Electronic, 1991), 406.
 LS, 530.
 Lane, Hebrews, 47b:397.
 Ibid., 408.
 Bruce, Hebrews, 335.
 deSilva, 430.
 LS, 542.
 Morris, in EXP, 12:134.
 Lane, Hebrews, 47b:408.
 The Soncino Midrash. Judaic Classics Library II.
 BDAG, 17.
 deSilva, 427.
 Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24-26; Galatians 2:2; 5:7; Philippians 2:16; 2 Timothy 4:7.
 Guthrie, Hebrews, 250.
 Hegg, Hebrews, 224.
 Bruce, Hebrews, 337.
 Cf. Ibid., fn#37.
 BDAG, 997.
 Quanbeck, in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, 900.
 Bruce, Hebrews, 338 fn#42.
The Latin version of this text can be accessed online at <http://thelatinlibrary.com/cicero/rabiriopost.shtml>.
 deSilva, 432.
 Ellingworth, 642.
 LS, 58.
 Matthew 5:10-12; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 4:13; 5:1, 10.