Hebrews 12:1-13

David H. Linden  University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA   (revised September, 2011)


All the examples of faithfulness in chapter 11 were mere men and women. The writer now turns to Christ as His ultimate example of endurance. He also changes the way he speaks. All of chapter 11 was a report of facts; 11:40 switches from ‘they’ to ‘we’ and begins to exhort. The reflection on the suffering of Christ will be followed by a major pastoral concern, namely the suffering of his readers. Though these sufferings are not the same – Jesus’ death was atoning and ours is not – there is still a connection. The writer wants them to know what good purpose there is in their sufferings.


A cycle is now completed. In the early part of Hebrews our Priest helps the tempted (2:18) and the weak (4:15) who come to Him. The writer continued noting their suffering in 10:32-34 and urged a persevering faith; he illustrated with the OT saints the faith he wanted to see produced in them. In chapter 12, He follows with the cross of Christ, His glory at the right hand of God, and comes back to their suffering again. The writer is concerned that they be faithful in their trials, and encouraged by the witness of others. If we think of Hebrews as chiefly a doctrinal writing and do not see the strong pastoral motivation in it, we simply do not understand the book. The writer’s agenda now is to delve deeper into the purpose of their trials with careful explanation to support the exhortation coming with it.  


Early in Hebrews the writer defended the deity of the Son and then the uniqueness of the Priest in the order of Melchizedek.  By using the OT he showed no Jew could reject Christ and support the sacrifices and priests of Levi without rejecting the Scriptures they claimed to believe.  It was a vigorous intellectual and theological defense of the faith.  Along with this, was the issue that turning from Christ was apostasy from which there could be no recovery. The issue was not just an intellectual debate. Having or rejecting Christ has eternal consequences. Chapters 6 & 10 mention their personal trials.  In Chapter 12 before final the two warnings, Hebrews becomes very pastoral, paying careful attention to their need of gentle rebuke and giving patient teaching from Scripture about their sufferings.  Both are mixed with a large dose of encouragement, with more to come in 13:5,6. Hebrews has such a pastoral side to it, that the author calls it in his closing comments “a word of exhortation” (13:22). 


12:1-3   Two encouragements begin chapter 12: the witnesses of the OT and the example of Christ. We always have comfort when we know our trials are not unique to us (Philippians 1:29,30; 1 Corinthians 10:13).   The struggles we face are the same in every age. The more we see that, the more encouragement we will receive from the testimony of those who have run a good race and finished their course. Just as believers in different locations had fellowship in giving (2 Corinthians 9), Hebrews reveals a unity among saints in different ages.   


12:1   Many suppose that this verse is teaching that the OT saints are in the stands of a great stadium observing the lives of later believers. The word “witness” in the NT never means observer. The OT saints are witnesses in what they show and exemplify, not in what they supposedly observe of later generations. They witness to us of the reality of a lifetime of faithfulness. God is pleased with them. They are testimonies of endurance and patient faith. Those readers of Hebrews who might be engrossed in their own trouble should be encouraged by the similar experience of OT saints.  They ran well and died well; they looked forward to a better resurrection (11:35) and God commended them (11:2). The message is clear - let us endure well so we too may have such a commendation.


This verse is not limited to the few OT saints mentioned in chapter 11. They were a small sample; the true picture is of a vast number of faithful “finishers” – in fact, a great cloud of them. In this race we are not involved in a petty, soon-to-be-forgotten sideshow; we are called into a huge enterprise of God that involves a multitude. God encourages us with the immense number of saints (Revelation 7:9). 


We do not yet see the city of God with physical eyes, so we need spiritual discipline like that of athletes.  Runners take off unnecessary garments so they can run better. The weight that will always slow us down is our sin - any sin.  The Christian is to be proactive in discipline and aware of our peculiar weaknesses so that we do not cater to them. 


The writer is a pastor who places himself with his people. He says let us throw off, let us run, let us fix our eyes on Jesus. The readers know he is in their struggle. This is side-by-side fellowship. The verse assumes that we have sin. A call to holiness (12:14) is never an assumption that we will ever be free of sin in this life.  


The appeal to run with perseverance means we cannot be satisfied with faithfulness in the past as a reason to become lazy or dull (5:11).  He makes a similar point in 10:32-39. Since the race is marked out for us – obviously by God – it is our obligation to participate. Anything less is rebellion. Laxity amounts to choosing the wrong example (4:11) such as those who, in unbelief, would not enter the promised land (3:16 – 4:11).


12:2,3  The Example of Jesus   It is a distortion of the gospel to present Jesus only as an example. In His unique redeeming ministry He is a Substitute for us as well as the Lord God over us. Scripture does show Him an example in some passages (John 13:12-17 & 1 Peter 2:21-23).


The call to fix our eyes on Jesus brings back the volume of material about Christ as our high priest in previous chapters. The common tendency to treat doctrine and life as detached from each other is impossible to defend in Scripture.  Fixing eyes on Jesus is essentially the same as fixing thoughts on Jesus in 3:1, and in assimilating truth about him. Fixing eyes on Jesus is not a call to mysticism. It is a call to reflection on the divine revelation of Christ. One longstanding way to distract our attention to Christ is to fix our eyes on pictures God has not given, pictures invented and painted by some man with no idea what Jesus really looked like. The tendency is to make the Lord look effeminate. One of the chief gifts to aid us in fixing the mind on the real Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews.


Jesus, the Author and Finisher of Faith   “Author” has no reference to a writer; the word in Greek has the sense of a beginner of something, and even better the leader who is out front as the first. This may seems strange when all the OT examples of faith precede Jesus in time.  Their faith was not perfect, while Jesus in His human experience was perfect in obedience, something which cannot be said of any other man. The same Greek word appears only three other times in the NT (Acts 3:15; 5:31 &  Hebrews 2:10). The context of 2:10 has Jesus defeating the devil to set His people free. This also sets Him apart from all the other examples of faith, for that is a unique accomplishment of Christ which precedes and enables His people to resist the devil as a consequence      (1 Peter 5:9). For this reason some like to translate the word “champion”.  He is the Champion of faith, because He too battled sin and all opposition to God, and He has done so as our leader. We are called into fellowship with Jesus not only in a moral sense of personal sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:8,9) but also in purposeful sharing of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10). We could be sanctified in a moment, as in death (12:23) or the Second Coming (1 John 3:2), but sanctification requires suffering for a while in a hostile world.


The burden of Hebrews is that the readers should finish their race in faith. We fix our eyes of Jesus in the sense of His completing His mission.  Being seated at the right hand (again from Psalm 110:1!) emphasizes completion.  In Christ we have eternal life, but not eternal conflict. One great privilege of this brief time prior to His Coming is that this is our only opportunity to suffer for Him. He has finished His race; now He is getting us through ours. The word for Finisher is not found anywhere else in the Bible or in any other Greek writing of the time of Hebrews. It is a form of “perfect” (5:9), perhaps coined for this verse!  We should remember that many things have been accomplished. The incarnation, offering, resurrection and ascension are all history.  Those called to finish their race need the clear sense that much has been done.  One of us, One Who became a man, is already resurrected and glorified in heaven.  He is the forerunner (6:20), already there with more to follow.  We are not called to frustration but to active involvement in a great contest with a large number of winners as examples, plus Jesus the Champion Who is already home.  


“For the joy set before Him” – this is often taken to mean Jesus’ motivation in suffering; He knew what good He would accomplish. That interpretation may be correct; if so, we ought to see it as the joy He would have in His finished mission and the ultimate answer to His prayer in John 17: 24.  Since Christ is presented here as an example, the implication is that we too will be satisfied and joyful for finishing the race well (2 Timothy 4: 6-8).


Perhaps the joy Jesus faced has reference to the joy He declined in favor of going to the cross, knowing the shame and pain but refusing to consider that a reason to divert Him in His race. This interpretation means there the “joy” in view is a desirable alternative which could tempt Him to turn to it and away from the race marked out for Him by the Father. He chose the Father’s will (10:7-10) instead of a different “joy”, and that is the example He is for us. Whether this is correct, it is clear that the order was the cross prior to glory (1 Peter 1:11; Hebrews 2:9,10) and that order was the Father’s will for Jesus, as it is for us. We cannot run a good race if our attitude is different in this matter (Philippians 2:5).   


12:3 Consider Him   The language here is not the softer “let us” speech of vv.1,2; it is an imperative. We are commanded to think on Christ enduring opposition. If we do not, we will be surprised by trials (1 Peter 4:12) and unprepared. Considering the kind of race He ran and its conclusion will not discourage us, but not thinking about it will. We deal with deep mysteries and we must still believe the truth, even when we do not fathom the situation. God, in an intentional encounter with evil, chose that the Son of God would face the opposition of sinful men.  We must consider Him so we will be willing to endure the same. 



12:4-11   These verses contain correction, but they mainly provide explanation before exhortation is resumed.  Here is an explanation from God on the purpose of our suffering. It is hardly complete to tell the readers of Hebrews that they ought to suffer well because others did. The readers’ hardship also had a purpose. It was a blessing to them, and a benefit their loving heavenly Father will not deny them. 



12:4,5   The struggle against “sin” is probably the same as the opposition of sinners (v.3) faced by Jesus. If so it probably does not refer to a private struggle with sin in the heart, but to the external opposition of persecution. That kind of sin has the obvious possibility of bloodshed, but they have not experienced death yet.   


Two kinds of reproof appear here. The writer reminds them that they have not suffered to the point of death as Jesus did. This puts their trial is more accurate perspective. We are tempted to magnify our trouble beyond reality. The other is a gentle rebuke that they have forgotten some word of God that so directly addresses their situation. This means the text was indeed known to them and that it had fallen out of consideration in their thinking. We probably know many Scriptures that we fail to connect to our lives. Our lives will have more peace and righteousness when we remember Scripture that have faded in our minds. The writer repeats the Word of God to them from Proverbs. The rebuke is that they have overlooked an encouraging word from the Lord.  The Proverbs text is Solomon speaking to his son, but the Holy Spirit had it recorded for us so that it would be our heavenly Father speaking to us.


12:5,6   The Scripture they forgot: Proverbs 3:11,12   The intimate language “my son”, begins a loving explanation.  The Lord’s discipline means He owns us as His own; He loves us and has a good purpose in His discipline. Their experience of sin against them, the opposition of sinners, was what they could see. Proverbs 3 is what they needed to understand. We face the danger of misreading God’s purpose and viewing trouble as the same kind of treatment from the Lord as what the opposition delivers.  That would be a serious mistake.  God’s discipline comes in the bond of sonship, in which God is not passive in His parental activity. In love, He wants what is better for us. In His wise discipline, He trains us in righteousness, and He may even use the sins others commit against us for our benefit.  


12:7-11   We have a model to help us understand. This model is imperfect. Not all earthly fathers are alike; many still realize that there was often a good motive in their discipline. If we receive none from an earthly father it indicates more than carelessness; it shows he does not consider his child as really his. It is a denial that we are accepted as sons. The discipline of God (Deuteronomy 8:5) is much better. Its motive is pure, and it comes in His wisdom.  So we believe His word in Hebrews 12 that it is good for us. We respected earthly fathers for correction and training. We must respect God our Father too.


God is called “the Father of spirits” (Numbers 16:22). This is another way to say we must remember that the One Who loves and disciplines us is God, God above all, above all these other beings referred to as spirits. No one is more exalted than God. If we can accept the discipline of a fallible father and respect him, surely we can submit to the sovereign wisdom in whatever the Lord has marked out for us (12:1). Sharing in God’s holiness may be a description of the final state of the believer, in the sense of being brought to glory (2:10). If so, it is still clear that current discipline in suffering is contributing to that goal. We enjoy a measure of the harvest of peace and righteousness now, a kind of before-dinner-taste (Ephesians 1:13,14), yet full salvation (9:28) is in the coming age (Isaiah 32:17). Being comfortable with the world is detrimental. The Lord has good ways to loosen us from it.   


12:10   “That we may share in His holiness”   12:11  A harvest”   Confessing Christ is probably what provoked opposition. Boasting in Christ (3:6) and confessing boldly brought a stiff reaction from sinners.  Hebrews teaches that the pain is short term, but life (v.9) and the harvest of righteousness and peace is the lasting good we gain (v.10). We come to share in God’s holiness. Suffering is handed out by men.  Training, strengthening, and sanctifying is the gracious work of God comprehended by faith. Issues become clearer to us when we are hated for Christ’s sake. Surely we see our pilgrim life more clearly in this world. Surely we look much more to the city of God when we suffer in the city of man. Our sanctification is not only the will of God (1 Thessalonians 4:3), it is the agenda of God. He loves His children too much to let us wander in sin. God is determined to lessen our affection for the world.


The absence of discipline would indicate the absence of fatherly attention to us! The experience of discipline is the Father training us for running the race. He not only put us in it but trains us for it (5:14). “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67). 


12:12,13   Feeble hands and unsteady knees – this is the body language of discouragement in Isaiah 35:3,4, which Isaiah connects to a fearful heart. Hebrews quotes a little of Proverbs 4:26.  In its larger context, Proverbs 4:20-27 mentions many parts of the body in father–son counsel, urging the son in the path of righteousness. By choosing “level paths” for their feet in Proverbs 4, the writer maintains his analogy of running a good race.  The call to strengthen arms and knees is simply to take to heart all that has been said earlier in chapter 12. To fix the eyes on Jesus, to consider Him, and to remember God’s word of encouragement will strengthen the heart. Hebrews does not pump up enthusiasm by drawing on our internal resources. Instead, the heart is “strengthened by grace” (13:9).  Weariness (12:3) and losing heart (12:5) are serious threats to the health of the church. This kind of issue requires pastoral attention and teaching, and this very doctrinal book does not leave it out.


The sense of a level path in Proverbs 4 is ethical since the counsel there is choosing righteousness over sin. Sin hinders running the race marked out for us (12:2). The Lord taught that the level path is straight (Matthew 7:13,14), so it does not turn in any direction contrary to God’s revelation.  The level path heads heavenward (Philippians 3:13,14) to the city that is to come (13:14). Here we run as pilgrims going somewhere; in the New Jerusalem we shall walk (Revelation 21:24) relaxed because we are at home with the Lord.


Christ has arrived at home (12:2). It is right that He should be seated and that we should still be running. We do not coast to heaven. We arrive in God’s rest only by ceasing from our works (4:9,10). We are safe and assured through faith in the blood and righteousness of Christ; then we make every effort to enter His rest (4:11). We do this with diligence to make our hope sure (6:11). The church should be warned that the real problem with slackers is that they may not be headed to heaven at all! (More people should read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.)


The writer probably does not describe everyone in the church as lame. Only some had the habit of absence in 10:25, not all. The continuing good works in 6:10 show they were not all lame. The recurring burden of “not one” in 3:12 and 4:1, reveals the writer’s burden for those who alter. Thus I conclude the lame are the weaker ones. The strong must think of them (Romans 15:1). When the strong run a good race, it encourages others to do the same. The strategy of ministry in Hebrews stresses the effect of mutual encouragement (3:13). Fellowship is not for fun; it is for a joint pilgrimage to the city with foundations. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus…” (Romans 15:5).


A little review!  Our suffering is a fellowship of the suffering of Christ since we face the same opposition and hostility that Jesus endured. In finishing well, He is our chief example. Our suffering has been wonderfully “marked out for us” by our loving Father in the peculiar time, place and opportunity in which He has placed us. We are to believe His encouraging explanation of these things, submit to it in faith, and respect Him as the Supreme “Father of spirits”. In combining suffering with confessing Christ (remember, the hostility endured was in reaction to something!) He trains us and works in us an increase of peace and righteousness anticipating the goal of sharing His holiness. On the path we run we are to help each other.