Writers of the New Testament were familiar with the Olympic games which were observed five hundred years before their time in Greece. Every city of size in Palestine had a stadium where athletic contests were held. Among the many games was the foot race.
As a means of dramatizing the need for discipline in the Christian life, Paul drew analogies from the athletic games, particularly running and boxing to illustrate the need for discipline and control in the Christian life.
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath…. Well, J do not run aimlessly, 1 do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).
The author of Hebrews uses the imagery of an athletic stadium. Among spectators are the heroes of the Christian faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets (Hebrews 11). Here is the picture of a stadium; spectators are in the galleries; contestants are ready to run. The spectators, as William Hersey Davis used to put it, are letter men and women, alumni returned to see a later generation run the race.
“Wherefore” seeing that the galleries are filled with Gold Medal persons — those persons of faith in the Hebrews 11 — the new runners are enjoined to lay aside every “weight” (handicap), and “sin” (sin in general) and run with patience. This is not a hundred yard dash but a long and sometimes grueling race, a marathon.
I have two general points to press upon us: (1) to run the race of faith freely and fully we must learn how to handle our handicaps; and (2) it is imperative that we look to Jesus as both master and model of our lives.
The figures in the balcony have already run and by faith have won. They endured, and are there to encourage us, to witness to us. Encouraging one another in Christ is a lost virtue. As a worshiper at Harvard Memorial Church when George Buttrick was pastor there (and as colleague at Southern Baptist Seminary when he taught there) Buttrick called me Barnabas because he said: “You encourage me.” What a compliment from one of the great preachers of this century! But his was a ministry of encouragement. This is our ministry also (Ephesians 6:22; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
Therefore, seeing that we are surrounded by all of these persons who have won the race through persistence, patience, suffering and discipline, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that would disqualify us. The term also indicates that we are to practice the same discipline which the saints of faith in the balcony did.
What are those weights that are handicapping us? Are we about to drop out of the race?
Is your handicap a lack of faith and courage to respond to God’s call to take the high road less traveled? Coach, call Abraham from the balcony for an encouraging word! For “He went not knowing where he was going” and became our model of faith and a father of nations.
Christian faith is an adventure. Such faith I have seen demonstrated in persons I have conversed with across the years: Thomas Merton, Carlyle Marney, John Howard Griffin, Martin Luther King Jr., W. O. Carver, and Clarence Leonard Jordan who translated faith in Hebrews 11:1 as “Turning your dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.”
Is God calling you? Are you at the fork of the road in your ministry? Is God challenging you to take the road less traveled? To the mission field? To a downtown church? To a bi-vocational ministry until you can build a church that can support you?
Is your handicap the common cold of mental disorders, namely depression? Call Elijah, who after destroying the prophets of Baal was threatened by their chief sponsor, Jezebel. Elijah was so frightened that he ran to Beersheba and on into the desert so fast, according to J. McKee Adams, that you could “shoot marbles on his coattail.” There in the desert Elijah laid down under a “broom tree” and manifested all the signs of a major depression: lack of a sense of self-worth, paranoia, and meaninglessness. On to Mt. Horeb he entered into a cave. The “word of the Lord” came to him and said: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God’s therapy for the depressed is: (l) get back into creative activity. God called Elijah to face the wilderness and on his way anoint a king over Syria and a king over Israel, and Elisha to be a prophet (2 Kings 19:1-18); (2) the assurance that God has many other people who have not bowed to the evil one (v. 18). Awareness that there are others who share your suffering can be reassuring and encouraging. Responding to God’s call to action can be healing.
The Besetting Sin
Some say that they are not eligible to run the race because of an immoral past. Call David for encouragement. David was guilty of adultery and murder. This story is told so plainly in the Bible (2 Samuel 112 Samuel 12). In the spring when kings went to war, David stayed home. Next door he saw a beautiful woman bathing. He sent for her, slept with her, and she became pregnant. Her husband was in the war. David sent for him hoping that he would sleep with his pregnant wife and think that it was his child. But he refused to see his wife. So David got another idea. He sent Uriah, the pregnant woman’s husband, back to battle with a letter to his general which instructed the general to put Uriah at the front of the fight, then withdraw and let him die.
David thought he had solved his problem. But God sent Nathan, the prophet, to see the king. David welcomed his pastor, who told him one of the most dramatic and touching stories in all literature (2 Samuel 12:1-6). In substance it is a story about two men: one rich who had many flocks and herds and one who had but “one little ewe lamb” which was brought up with his children and was like a daughter to him. A guest came to the rich man’s home. Unwilling to take one of his own flock, he took the poor man’s little lamb and prepared it for his guest.
When David heard this story, he became exceedingly angry and declared that the man should die. Then Nathan with great courage declared: “You are the man.” David’s child by Uriah’s wife died despite his pleas to God to save it. His prayer for forgiveness and confession of sin is expressed in Psalms 51. It is a prayer for mercy and cleansing from sin. He found forgiveness in his brokenness of heart.
The “Thorn in the Flesh”
Perhaps your handicap is what the apostle Paul called a “thorn in the flesh” (Galatians 6:11). We don’t know the exact nature of this handicap. It could have been poor eyesight or some form of chronic illness. He prayed three times that God would remove it. God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So let us call Paul for encouragement in our infirmities and handicaps. Many have found God’s grace to be sufficient. And they have lived triumphantly in spite of their weaknesses. Milton wrote his greatest poem after being afflicted with blindness. Beethoven produced his finest music after he became deaf. Helen Keller — who was deaf, mute, and blind — became a distinguished writer. Walter Rauschenbusch became totally deaf in his early twenties yet became one of America’s most creative theologians and writers.
Handling Our Handicaps
We must lay aside weights and sins that hinder us in this race with all heaven looking on. But how? The biblical answer is by “looking to Jesus.” This may sound simplistic but remember that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1). In the ancient Greek stadium the runner kept his eyes on a stone statue of the Greek god Zeus. In the Christian race, the Christian Bowl, the runner keeps his eye on the living Christ.
Look to Jesus for redemptive power. Today we are looking to the politicians, the scientists, the government, the cults, formal religion, and the psychologists for salvation. Yet our sinful selves cannot be psychotherapized away, for we are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus’ disciples saw no alternative to salvation when they asked: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The distinguished English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, described his conversion in language of the look. He looked at himself and to God and they became one forever.
Look to Jesus as our model of spirituality and morality. The Greek word for look was used to describe an artist and model. The Christian seeks to imitate Jesus. This imitation takes numerous forms. This imitation Christi motive is replete in the writings of Paul, the Apostle. We are to imitate Christ, that is, we are to “have the mind of Christ” in all humility (Philippians 2:1-11).
Christ is to be imitated in His love (Ephesians 5:1-2); in purity (1 John 3:3); in long-suffering (1 Peter 2:21); in forgiveness (Colossians 3:13); in bearing with the weak (Romans 15:2f); in gentleness and forbearance (2 Corinthians 10:1); in benevolence (2 Corinthians 8:1-9); in short, Christians are to “copy Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:1).
Here we must enter a caveat. There are some aspects of Christ that cannot be copied; He alone is redeemer, but we can copy Him in spirit, love, and humility. We must bear in mind that we do not imitate Christ to make us Christians; we imitate Christ because we are Christians.
Look to Jesus for ultimate victory in this life and that to come. The ancient Greek runners kept their eyes on Zeus. The prize was a perishable wreath of leaves. Christian runners keep their eyes focused on Christ. The prize is permanent. Paul observes that the Greek runners received “a perishable wreath,” but the Christian “an imperishable” one (1 Corinthians 9:25).
When Peter Snell held the world record in the mile, he told a New Zealand TV audience that the eyes of the Christian must constantly be fixed upon Jesus Christ. He said he won the 800-meter championship at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960 because the runner ahead of him glanced to the right instead of looking straight ahead. Snell passed him on the left.
Our victory is assured because Christ was victorious. He “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Hence, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). A poet has put it this way:
I asked them whence the victory came;
They with united breath,
Ascribed their conquest to the Lamb
Their triumph to his death.
(Isaac Watts)

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