Hebrews 12:1-11 Exegetical Notes and Preaching Outline

Cultural / Historical Background: The book of Hebrews is a balanced combination of doctrinal exposition and paraenesis. The audience and author of the book are unknown, but according to the content of the book, traditionally many scholars think it’s written primarily for jewish-Christian audience. The letter was written as an attempt to prevent a relapse into or a failure to move completely out of Judaism (Attridge, 10). However there are other factors involved in this letter, including persecution, the delay of Parousia, and the general fatigue, doubt and lassitude that naturally developed in a community grown too accustomed to its initial commitment.

Contextual Background: the text of 12:1-11 is part of a big chunk starting from 10:26 and finishing at 12:13. It’s the 4th main point of the letter as an exhortation to faithful endurance. It’s the rhetorical climax of the epistle, also contains the author’s last major teaching, and his final general appeal to the readers to avoid apostasy. 10:26-28 is the Paraenetic prelude, 11:1-40 is an encomium on faith, then 12:1-13 is a homily on faithful endurance. The concluding exhortation of the whole book starts from 12:14. The major focus of the text is the virtue mentioned at the end of chapter 10 – the endurance. Particularly toward the conclusion of chapter 11, the endurance here is linked to the endurance of persecution.

Structure: The text has three major sections. The first section is vv. 1-3, talking about Jesus the inaugurator and perfecter of faith and endurance. Then vv 4-6 is a citiation of the Scripture, followed by an expository application of vv. 7-11. I would rather segment it into three metaphors: metaphor of race (vv.1-2), metaphor of wrestling (vv.3-4), and metaphor of discipline (vv.5-11).

Original Language Observation: (1) The introductory segment begins with imagery evocative of a stadium and a call to “run the race”. The “witnesses” are part of the athletic image that develops in this and next verse. The adjective modifying sin εὐπερίστατον is problematic and causes various translations. It is most likely related to the noun περίστασις which can be used of any ‘circumstance”, especially the circumstance of distressing. Taken actively, the adjective might refer to which readily “surrounds” or “besets” in a hostile sense. (Attridge, 355). They should run with endurance suggests that the race is more marathon than short sprint. It recalls the summons to endurance in chapter 10, and indicates that it’s associated with faith. Ellingworth suggests that the race is focused on the possibility of success or failure, of reaching or failing to reach the goal (Ellingworth, 639). (2) ἀφορῶντες “look toward” appeared a vivid image of Jesus as the leader or forerunner of the race. The present participle suggests the constant attention which the author has repeatedly recommended since 2:1 (Ellingworth, 640). Πελειτής (“perfecter”) is an unusual term recalls the complex theme of perfection in Hebrews. There the receiver of is not Christ or Christians, but the faith is perfected, first in the creation through his death, then through him as the model and leader of the faith race. There are two appositions to “Jesus” here. ἀντὶ is taken in a substitutionary sense (“instead of”), demonstrating a choice Jesus made. (3) The focus continues on Christ’s endurance, but the object is shifted to the “hostility” (ἀντιλογιαν) of sinners. This word appeared earlier in 6:16 and 7:1. Here it erfers to active opposition or rejection. It might lead us to think about the ministry of Jesus and his passion. (4) In verse 4, another verb of “struggling against” (ἀνταγωνιζόμενοι) is used. It might be derived from another athletic activity, either boxing or wrestling, with the opponent of “sin”. (5) Agricultural metaphor of “producing fruit” (καπόν … ἀποδίδωσιν) describes the final results of divine discipline. The “fruit” is described with two attributives (genitive of attribute): “peace” might indicate harmonious human relationships among people groups, while “righteousness” associated with the exalted Christ and result of faith.

Difficult Text /Theology: (1) verse 2 indicates that Christ is the leader of those who run faith’s race. He is also the “founder” and “initiator”. There are two important senses here: He is the specific source of the faith of the addresses; he is also the first person to have obtained faith’s ultimate goal, the inheritance of divine promise (Attridge, 356). The promise is illustrated in 11:13, 39. (2) In verse 4, the image alludes to the persecution that the addressees have faced. The emphasis on shame and hostility in the preceding verses suggests the similarity between the experience of Christ and the audience. The author implies that the imitation of Christ’s endurance might ultimately involve martyrdom. (3) vv. 5-6 is a citation from Prov 3:11-12 in its LXX form. Commentaries and translations are divided on whether to understand the introduction to quotation as a rhetorical question or a statement. The original text develops commonplace themes of the wisdom tradition, which frequently gave advice on the process of educative discipline. God’s beloved suffer not because they have been abandoned, but precisely because God loves them, and they can take comfort from it. Attridge suggests that it is frequently repeated in Jewish tradition and early Christians. The discipline is not connected with punishment as we usually understand in current culture, but connected with sonship based on the following text. Broadly speaking, the Greek tradition emphasized παιδεία as education, while Hebrew tradition stressed the positive value of discipline of his people by punishment (Ellingworth, 649). (4) The author unfold the second metaphor in several steps: a. Similarities in relationship within which instruction/discipline occurs; b. Outcome of instruction differs; c. Perception of instruction is also different. (5) v.8 is the negative counterpart of v.7c. the author applies the Roman law regarding illegitimate sons to the readers that they would have more reason for concern if they did not experience God’s discipline through the suffering of persecution. (6) Verse 11develops the contrast between present difficult discipline and future reward, implies that the temporary suffering associated with discipline produces a lasting good. It’s also common in proverbial wisdom in Jewish and Greek literature.

Preaching Hints: (1) As in any metaphor, some elements transfer and others don’t. Endurance is the primary focus of the two metaphors in race and boxing. Though in a real footrace there’s only one victor, here all who persevere are honored. The goal of faith is not triumph over others, but serving others and build the community. It’s not other believers that bring threats, but sin and sinners bring threats. Both metaphors ask us to look to Jesus. He is the pioneer and completer of the faith. He is the forerunner opened a new way into God’s presence. (2) The faithful of the past watch the contest in which the audience is now competing. In this sense, the witnesses are “spectators” (Koester, 522). Being surrounded by witnesses also implies a meaning of on the court, the witnesses underscores the audience’s accountability. According to Croy and Westcott (O’Brien, 451), witnesses also interpret to us the meaning of our struggle. There’s also a contrast between “witnesses” encourages believers, while “sin” encircles to entangle them like a bulky robe impedes running. (3) Jesus is not only an example of suffering and endurance. As they “fix their eyes” on him, the will find him also to be the “perfecter” of their faith. Jesus will bring maturity and fulfillment to us. Athletes competing in a race must keep their eyes fixed on the goal. (4) The heart of the 3rd metaphor is the understanding of God as “father.” The book of Proverbs reflects a culture that took for granted the father’s disciplinary role, which is not common in societies today. It also implies that suffering comes from God ultimately. It carries a robust sense of God’s sovereignty.

Bibliography: Attridge, Harold W. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Fortress Press, 1989 | Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Baker, 2007 | Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans, 1964 | Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans, 1993 | France, R.T. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews. Zondervan, 2006 |Hagner, Donald A. Hebrews, NIBC. Hendrickson, 1990 | Koester, Craig R. Hebrews. Doubleday, 2001 | O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Herbrews. Eerdmans, 2010


The Significance of Perseverance in Suffering

Hebrews 12:1-11

Introduction: I used to take it for granted that once I accept the faith, I will hold the faith until death. But later I found that there are really many difficulties and problems after I became Christian. Threats from college teachers, disappointments from parents, being mocked by friends…do they have a meaning?

Organizational Sentence: The text of Hebrews 12:1-11 illustrates this topic in three aspects: the necessity of perseverance, the source of perseverance, and the outcome of perseverance.

Sermon Outline (Didactic):

I. We are running the race of faith that needs perseverance in suffering. (vv. 1-4)

Validation:

  1. (Look around) The race is marked out for us by witnesses (v.1). Explain the metaphor of race (perseverance), roles of witnesses, and how to run the race.
  2. (Look Up) Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of the race (v.2). Explain the roles of Jesus in the race: author, perfecter, forerunner, and model of suffering.
  3. (Look at ourselves) We need perseverance because persecution will let us suffer (v.3-4). Explain the metaphor of wrestling.

Illustration: How this verse comforted me and gave me perseverance when I was opposed by sinners in the first time. (Explain perseverance in positive way).

Application: Always look upon to Jesus in suffering and persecution because He is the lead and forerunner.

II. Our perseverance in suffering is the discipline from heavenly father. (vv. 5-10)

Validation:

  1. Scripture’s indication of suffering as Lord’s discipline is an encouragement (vv. 5-6). Because suffering is in the control of sovereign God.
  2. Discipline is a sign of sonship (vv. 7-8), it indicates a heavenly father of love.
  3. Heavenly father’s discipline is much better than earthly fathers (vv. 9-10) because he is the God of Omniscience.

Illustration: How the sufferings and troubles help believers in my home church to grow.

Application: Be thankful for the suffering and enduring, and always try to learn God’s intension in your circumstances through prayer and Scripture reading.

III. The outcome of perseverance in suffering lasts into eternity. (vv. 11)

Validation: Using the metaphor of athletes who exercise hard in order to reach the best performance, remind audience that our award is peace and righteousness in eternity.

Illustration: (the metaphor is already self-explanatory, but we can also use a similar metaphor on how we work hard on a temporal project in order to get later promotion.)

Application: Ref 2 Cor 4:17, know the value of suffering and always look forward to the glory in eternity.

Proposition: Our perseverance in suffering has eternal values.

Conclusion: As followers of Jesus, we are facing various kinds of troubles and sufferings. We shall know the eternal meaning in our sufferings and run the race of faith with perseverance.


Preaching Notes

The Exegetical Issues: (1) The introductory verse 1 begins with imagery evocative of a stadium and a call to “run the race”. It is very important to the constitution of the proposition. The exegetical problem is regarding the role of “witness” in the race. The faithful of the past watch the contest in which the audience is now competing. In this sense, the witnesses are “spectators” (Koester, 522). Being surrounded by witnesses also implies a meaning of on the court, the witnesses underscores the audience’s accountability. According to Croy and Westcott (O’Brien, 451), witnesses also interpret to us the meaning of our struggle. There’s also a contrast between “witnesses” encourages believers, while “sin” encircles to entangle them like a bulky robe impedes running. So “witness” is part of the race, and they started the race with their testimony, and encourage us to run the race. It is the fact of Christian life today. Another exegetical issue in this metaphor is that “They should run with endurance”, suggesting that the race is more marathon than short sprint. It recalls the summons to endurance in chapter 10, and indicates that it’s associated with faith. Ellingworth suggests that the race is focused on the possibility of success or failure, of reaching or failing to reach the goal (Ellingworth, 639). The focus of the race here is not competition, but the award of perseverance. This concept of race of faith also lays a foundation stone to the proposition. (2) The role of Christ is introduced in verse 2 and 3. ἀφορῶντες “look toward” presents a vivid image of Jesus as the leader or forerunner of the race. The present participle suggests the constant attention which the author has repeatedly recommended since 2:1 (Ellingworth, 640). Πελειτής (“perfecter”) is an unusual term recalls the complex theme of perfection in Hebrews. There the receiver of is not Christ or Christians, but the faith is perfected, first in the creation through his death, then through him as the model and leader of the faith race. Again the role of Christ connect our temporal enduring and suffering with faith which will last into eternity. (3) The citation of OT in verse 5-7 is another important factor. From the structure of the text, it triggers the third metaphor of lovely father discipline his children. But for the audience (Jewish Christians), the original text develops commonplace themes of the wisdom tradition, which frequently gave advice on the process of educative discipline. God’s beloved suffer not because they have been abandoned, but precisely because God loves them, and they can take comfort from it. Moreover, the rhetorical question brings peace to the audience because what they are experiencing is already recorded in the Scripture. In another word, the suffering is in the hand of sovereign hand. The rest of the father-son metaphor encourages reader to rest assure because the lovely father is the God of omnipotence and omniscience. The comfort and the encouragement let the audience turn to the positive meaning of perseverance in suffering, which is the proposition of the sermon.

The Flow of the Outline: The flow of the outline follows the structure of the text. I struggled on how to segment the text because there are several ways to handle it. (1) I choose to put verse 1-4 together because they all use the athletic metaphor and they all describe the current situation of suffering and enduring for Christians. Though the current circumstance is discouraging, the author still encourage readers to (a) look around to find witnesses who already experienced the same difficulty; (b) look upon to the initiator and perfecter Jesus Christ as the perfect model of suffering; (c) look at ourselves to check and adjust to run this race better. So the first segment helps Christians to realize our current position in an unfriendly environment. It also give us hope by introduce our comrades and the Lead, give us practical suggestions on how to run the race better. But this is not enough. (2) Then we have the second segment of verse 5-10, in which we can step back and look at the whole picture of suffering from creator’s perspective. This view would help us to understand the source and meaning of the suffering. In this view, first we will meet the quotation from OT as the starting point of the father-son metaphor. This starting point illustrates the OT sonship where son is under Father’s discipline with love. Here the word “discipline” needs further explanation to modern readers because it does not mean a punishment of doing things wrong, but an instruction or education of life. As we have discussed in exegetical issues, the citation of OT really comforted Jewish Christians, because now they know their situation (the “facts” from main 1) is known by God, predicated by God, and handled by God. The rest of the 2nd main illustrates the contrast between earthly father and heavenly father. The purpose is not to let us know more about fatherhood, but ask reader to understand a father of God, with omnipotence and omniscience. From this point forward, we would know that all education/training provided by this heavenly father can lead us into maturity in eternity. (3) At the end of the selected text we come to the conclusion that all these sufferings are used to train us so that we can bear the fruit of peaceful and righteousness. In the third main (verse 11) there is actually another metaphor of athletic life, but focused on the training and exercising. The outline starts from the metaphor of race and wrestling, leverage the metaphor of fatherhood for explanation, and use the metaphor of athletic life as conclusion. It covers all verses in the text. The first main is focused on the presence of suffering, the second main focus on the source of suffering, while the third main focus on the future (result) of suffering.

Explanations and Illustrations: Since the text uses four metaphors to illustrate the meaning of suffering and perseverance, adding metaphor would not be a wise choice. I use personal stories/experiences in the preaching to respond to the doctrine raised by the metaphors. (1) At the beginning of the introduction I use my struggle after coming to faith to draw speaker closer to the audience. It is also important to note that “perseverance of faith” does not simply mean claiming “I’m a Christian” under persecutions. It also means doing what Bible told us to do regardless of consequence in a suffering environment. Perseverance does not only mean keeping Christian identity, but also means doing what Christians are supposed to do. (2) The first metaphor from the author is worthy of explanation. Race emphasizes competition, but author might want to emphasize only the perseverance. The role of witnesses and the role of Jesus shall also be explained here. Then the second illustration would stay close to verse 3 of “opposed from sinners”. It’s also from my ministry experience that once I tried to persuade a couple of Christian lover to stop living together. The outcome is that they were very angry at me and our friendship broke up. At that time I was very upset, but this verse encourages me to look up to Lord who was opposed by sinners. My suffering is not a big deal comparing to him, and his suffering perfected salvation on me. I believe all God-centered Christian who are willing to serve God will have to face such kind of difficulty. This illustration will help them to realize suffering is part of persecution from the world. (3) In the second main, since the main point here is that heavenly father use suffering to train his true sons. We also need to explain the contrast here: how heaven father differs from earthly father.It is worthwhile to use the example of my home church (or Chinese house church in general) to illustrate how God use problems, sufferings and persecutions to help the church grow. We (leaders) used to worry that some new believers will fall away because of fear. But in fact they were surprisingly strengthened and matured. It proves that the persecution is from God and helpful for us. (3) In the third main, author already used an athletic metaphor. But it might be too far from audience. If time permits, I would like to use a metaphor from workplace that we are willing to work very hard on a temporal project or attend an intensive training in order to receive a promotion. God uses suffering in the same way.

Bibliography: Attridge, Harold W. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Fortress Press, 1989 | Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Baker, 2007 | Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans, 1964 | Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans, 1993 | France, R.T. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews. Zondervan, 2006 |Hagner, Donald A. Hebrews, NIBC. Hendrickson, 1990 | Koester, Craig R. Hebrews. Doubleday, 2001 | O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Herbrews. Eerdmans, 2010

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