A former Olympic distance runner and veteran missionary wrote the following to a friend who was caught in the throes of a horrendous personal crisis:
In this race . . . I suddenly hit a branch of a tree (and) . . . the blow almost knocked me out. . . . It knocked me out of my race, stopped me cold. . . . Somehow I staggered back on the track and stumbled along. . . . I remember one clear conclusion. I must keep going, even if I come in long behind. I must not quit. So I kept going. I won the race. . . . Whatever the difficulty, the blow, we must keep on. God will lead to the result that will glorify him. (Gordon MacDonald, Rebuilding Your Broken World [Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1988], p. 224.)
The sentence "Whatever . . . the blow, we must keep on" captures the theme of the letter to the Hebrews, which I have entitled "Race to Glory." The author of Hebrews states it very clearly: "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (12:1).
Throughout, the author emphasizes this chief concern for the readers—that they finish their faith-race with Jesus Christ gloriously and triumphantly. "Pay more careful attention," the author warns, "so that we do not drift away" (2:1). "Let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it [God's promised rest]" (4:1). "Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity," the writer appeals (6:1). "We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure" (6:11).
After convincingly showing how Jesus Christ meets all of our needs, the writer cries out, "Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. . . . Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful" (10:22-23). "Do not throw away your confidence. . . . You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised" (10:35-36).
The author devotes an entire chapter (11) to draw the readers to the stories of great heroes who finished the race to glory, people like Moses, Abraham, Noah, Jacob and Joseph. These witnesses are summoned to inspire us onward in our own faith-race.
A friend of mine loves to joke that when he gets to heaven he is going to find out who wrote Hebrews. The letter bears no byline, so scholars have had a field day speculating about its possible authors. Included in this list are Paul, Silas, Titus, Mark, Clement, Luke, Aquila, Priscilla and Barnabas. If you took a poll among these scholars, Luke, Barnabas and Apollos would be strongly favored. At any rate, whoever the author was, he or she knew the Hebrews very well.
The readers were knowledgeable Jews who had converted to faith in Jesus Christ. The entire scaffolding of the letter is Jewish history, theology and practice. These Jews were old enough in the faith to be teachers and to recall older leaders (5:12; 13:7). They had served one another and had suffered (6:10; 10:32-34). Their city can only be guessed at—possibly Jerusalem, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus or Rome.
What is completely clear about the audience is their spiritual peril. They were in danger of reverting to Judaism. The letter is chock full of warnings about it. They were being taunted by Jews as apostates from God and renegades from Moses. They were accused of abandoning their law and forfeiting the Old Testament promises.
So the writer goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus Christ is far superior to everything they had left behind for his sake. In that context, he warns them against neglect, unbelief, disobedience, immaturity and rejection. He stands in the grandstand, as it were, wildly cheering them on to stay on the track, not to quit, and to reach the finish line in the power of Jesus Christ.
Today's readers most likely will not have come to faith in Christ out of such a deeply embedded cultural and religious tradition. But every Christian at some time or other is tempted to quit and to ask, "What's the use?" As problems and roadblocks mount, as faith seems unproductive, as doors slam, we find it easy to think about quitting our personal faith-race.
We also need current reminders about the supremacy of Jesus Christ. There is no stronger enticement to stay in the race than to "fix your eyes on Jesus" (12:2). As the Pioneer of our salvation, he brings us to glory (2:10).
We run our faith-race in vital communion with God through prayer, by giving God's Word command of our lives, by faithfully worshiping him and loving fellow Christians, and by knowing and serving Jesus Christ better each day as our daily companion, guide and master.