Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Race Metaphor

Yesterday I talked a little bit about images and figurative language in scripture. I think sometimes we can end up reading more into a Bible metaphor or simile than the Spirit of God ever intended. Or we get caught up in the details of the picture itself and fail to grasp the spiritual reality it is meant to depict.

The writer to the Hebrews talks about running a race:

“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 …”

Here the writer and his original Hebrew audience (that’s the “we”; the rest of us are simply reading someone else’s mail) are compared to men and women running a race. We do well to ask ourselves two questions. Firstly, what is this “race” that is to be run? Secondly, what are the specific intended points of agreement between running and whatever it is this “race” is intended to typify?

What Is This “Race”?

The usual response to this passage is that the race is “the Christian life”.

That’s certainly not a completely crazy idea. There are lots of New Testament metaphors for the Christian life. It’s a war, and wars sometimes drag on for centuries. It’s a walk, and unless we are lame or infirm, walking is something we do daily. It’s the experience of family, and family of one sort or another is something we have for our entire lives. It’s an exile and a pilgrimage, and some people are exiles and pilgrims for life. All these work well as metaphors for the entire Christian life experience.

But a race? Races are comparatively short things. We humans race around in fits and starts, as necessary, not at every moment of every day.

Back to Chapter 11

Moreover, the writer to the Hebrews is calling his readers back to chapter 11, isn’t he? He says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also …” These “witnesses” behaved in a particular way, and his readers should behave in the same way. And lo and behold, when we look back at these witnesses, we find that each of them is commended for one or two specific things rather than for general patterns of behavior. It was in these critical moments of testing that their true character and faith was revealed.

Further, it is a specific moment of crisis in which the character of the Lord Jesus is revealed, who is our model here. Jesus, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame”. While his entire life was undoubtedly one of endurance, it is the cross that is specifically pointed to as “the race” that Jesus ran.

At least in this Hebrews context, “racing” seems to picture the appropriate Christian response to one or more critical moments in the life of faith; and our willingness to run when it is required of us signals our faith’s reality.

Points of Agreement Between Metaphor and Reality

Having established what the “race” might be, let’s ask ourselves in what way these faith crises in our Christian lives might be like running a race. I’d like to point to two things that are there in the passage intentionally for us, and I would suggest, like Louis Berkhof, that we concentrate on these rather than our own fancies about racing:

  Racing involves laying things aside. Metaphors for the Christian life experience necessarily involve encumbrances of one sort or another. Pilgrims and exiles cart their stuff around with them wherever they go, like Abraham did. Families definitely carry one another’s baggage; that’s part of the deal. Wars involve putting stuff on, not laying it off. You put on the whole armor of God, not divest yourself of it.

But in a race you take as little as possible. You ditch everything that might slow you down.

When the writer says, “every weight”, he’s not occupied with the fact that believers ought to stop sinning. That’s important too, and it’s coming in the very next clause of his sentence, but it’s not what he’s talking about when he refers to weights. The Greek word he uses means “bulk”, “mass”, “encumbrance” or “burden”. All these things are to be left behind.

What things? Well, he’s already given us examples, hasn’t he? He says, “let us ALSO lay aside every weight …” The “also”, I think, means “like the people I’ve just listed in my last chapter”. Let’s lay aside every weight the way they did.

Good Things Laid Aside

So what sort of good things did the great people of the faith lay aside in order to complete the tasks set before them and please God?
  • Abraham laid aside his country, his people and the land that would have been his earthly inheritance.
  • Later, Abraham laid aside his very natural, fatherly hopes for his own son when he obediently offered Isaac to God.
  • Sarah laid aside the constraints of conventional wisdom. Women over 90 just don’t have babies, after all, not even in patriarchal times. But conventional wisdom is no use when you’re dealing with God, so she happily chucked it. She was right.
  • Jacob laid aside tradition when he blessed his grandchildren. Tradition gave priority to Manasseh, Joseph’s firstborn, but Jacob gave priority to Ephraim because God said so.
  • Moses laid aside earthly financial reward. The treasures of Egypt could not compare to the privilege of bearing the reproach of Christ.
  • The people of Israel laid aside their perfectly rational fears when they walked through the Red Sea on dry land. All that water miraculously held back by God could have buried them forever at any moment, but they overcame their natural reaction and obeyed God’s command.
  • Rahab laid aside her civic duty. Some would have called what she did treason. It was a betrayal of all normal, acceptable earthly loyalties. God commends her for it.
It’s Over When It’s Over

Like the Hebrews to whom this letter was written, each one of us almost surely has a race of one kind or another set before us for the glory of God. But races do not last a lifetime. A sprint may last ten seconds. A marathon may last hours. But when they’re over, they’re over.

When the starting gun is fired and you are called to run, you drop everything and just do it. Each one of these men and women of faith had their own particular race to run; a task only they could perform, a test or responsibility conferred by God that was tailored specifically to them. When God called, they responded.

Metaphorically we might say they dropped everything and ran.

 Racing involves fixing one’s eyes on the prize. Runners have a goal, and the goal is the finish line. To run incredibly fast in the opposite direction might indeed break some kind of world record and be truly impressive, but it would not win the prize. The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers they must look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith”, just as he endured “for the joy that was set before him”. We cannot race without our eyes on the Lord.

Amazingly, despite having a fraction of the information we possess, these same Old Testament saints did precisely that, or so the writer of Hebrews insists:
  • Abraham looked forward to the city that has foundations.
  • Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. He looked forward.
  • Moses “considered the reproach of Christ”. He looked forward.
  • “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” They looked forward.
No doubt many of these saints didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. They stared into what may for them have been a distant, spiritual haze occasionally punctuated with glimpses of brilliant truth to which they clung with unshakable determination. We are not limited in the way they were, in that we can fix our eyes on the author and finisher of faith, the one in whom our faith culminates and is completely fulfilled.

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