Recently, I’ve had a verse on my mind a lot.
Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely (Hebrews 12:1)
There is a lot to say about this section of scripture, but what strikes me most about this verse lately is not so much the main analogy of running a race. It’s how the writer chooses to describe weights and sin and particularly what we do with them. He says, “let us lay aside.” I don’t know how you feel when you read this, but to me at first reading, it can sound demeaning, right? Of all the ways the writer could have described how we interact with sin, why “lay aside?” It sounds so small, so menial, so anticlimactic. “Just lay it aside.” Like putting your clothes in a drawer, set aside the sin and weights that encumber you. To many of us, probably most of us, sin is not something we just lay aside.
Most of us have that one sin or weight in particular that ensnares us over and over again, and we are engaged in a life or death struggle. We’re caught in the Romans 7 struggle minus the “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” part, and that sin, that abuse, that addiction is the largest thing in our view, blocking out practically everything else. Consider the struggle of reliving sexual abuse, the hopeless feeling of being addicted to sex and pornography, the seemingly irresistible pull of alcohol, the control of anger and bitterness. Do these sound like things we just set down, take off, lay aside? Is the author being ruthless, discompassionate, and dismissive? I think the question begs asking. How does something so overwhelmingly big become so menial, so dismissed and so insignificant? The answer to this question has two big implications for our struggles against sin.
Christ’s Overwhelming Greatness
First, the context of Hebrews 12:1 is illuminating to exactly what the author intends, and it is far from discompassionate:
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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
This cloud of witnesses is not the group of people in Hebrews 11 looking down upon us to whom we look for approval or applause. Rather, their lives bear witness to God’s faithfulness as we trust Him throughout life with patience and endurance, setting our hope fully on the inheritance still to come when Christ returns. In fact, there is one witness left out of Hebrews 11 who has the greatest testimony of all, and that is Jesus who is included now. First, let’s focus on what Jesus did: He “despised” this unimaginable shame of the cross, the very God of the universe spat upon, stripped, ruthlessly lashed, left limp and dying on a cross, and scorned by everyone passing by. Even worse, Jesus felt contempt from the Father as, for the first and only time in all of the existence of time, the Father looks away from His Son in disgust, seeing the sin of all who would believe on Him as Christ Himself embodied it and took on Himself wrath for it.
If you’re like me, “despise” carries the everyday meaning of hating intensely. That’s not necessarily wrong, but here it carries the nuance of looking down on and thinking little of. He looked down on shame as a lesser compared to Him, disrespectfully, even in a dismissive sense as if it wasn’t really worth His attention. To convince yourself, see how it’s used elsewhere in scripture (Rom 2:4; 1 Cor 11:22; 1 Tim 4:12,6:2; 2 Pet 2:10). This is why I do believe that the writer of Hebrews is probably intending his language in verse 1 to seemingly make light of our weights and sin nature. Christ basically made light of the shame of the cross, but how and why did He do that? How does the One who should be honored above all creation think little of such mockery and scorn? Please don’t take that question lightly or quickly. Think about who God actually is and what He deserves. Then think about how people treat Him here. Soak in the infinite separation between what He deserved and what He received instead. Think about your own situations of being misunderstood, mocked, lied against, shamed; and then how much greater Christ’s really was. How does He actually think little of it all?
Luckily, scripture does not leave us blind here, since we are among many other, deeper things to imitate Christ. We are to think light of shame as well; yet for us to breathe is to be infected with the fear of man. He did it for the joy set before Him — He did it by faith in grace to come, in the promises of God. Christ knew the Father would raise Him up and glorify Him above all creation as He deserves, but He also knew it was the Father’s will for this road to pass through the ugliest scene in human history, the worst suffering possible: the disgusted turning away of the Father’s eyes from His beloved Son. Jesus’ trust in the Father led Him to dismiss the weight of shame coming against Him, and He is now seated at the Father’s right hand. Christ’s gaze upon the Father and trust in Him completely eclipsed the shame.
Clearly, this shame is not small or something to be dismissed. Clearly, the author is not being dismissive of Christ’s agony on the cross. What he is doing is trumpeting the glory of God all the more, saying that whatever Christ’s suffering entailed, the joy set before Him was so much greater so as to render the suffering menial, disrespected, and dismissed. Yes, His shame and pain were unimaginable, and I actually mean that here as we honestly cannot begin to grasp the weight of what He bore. But this only serves to magnify the greatness of what was set before Him, a view of which cured the shame and rendered it insignificant by comparison. What was set before Christ was the Father with Whom He has eternally co-existed, and the Father rendered Christ’s suffering puny.
We, likewise, have lesser yet still extremely significant sufferings, sins, and weights bearing down on us. I don’t think the author has any intention of pretending otherwise or he wouldn’t have brought up Christ’s shame. Yet, we, looking to Christ, imitate Christ in His dismissal and His means of dismissal. As the Father promised to raise Christ from the grave and set Him on high above all creation, Christ has promised to raise us and make us co-heirs with Him, forever in the presence of the most beautiful, satisfying Person who ever lived. Christ trusts in the Father, and we likewise trust Christ as we look to Him, believing His promises and receiving eternal life. It is displaying (by preaching the gospel) and gazing upon (by meditating, obeying, believing, and trusting) Christ and His promises — the joy set before us — that does this supernatural act of rendering our admittedly great sufferings and sins insignificant by comparison. Paul says in Romans 8:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Scripture often commands us to lay aside and put off sin with similar type of language as we see in Hebrews 12:1. This is the key that unlocks that door. This is how Christ did it and how He enables us to do it as well as the Holy Spirit whom He sent reveals God’s nature and promises to us and gives us the faith to trust Him. This notion is definitely similar to the very helpful sermon of Thomas Chalmers called the “Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Just as it is only the surpassing greatness of God that renders otherwise significant sin and wight insignificant, it is only the surpassing greatness of a new affection for God that powerfully expels other affections for creation and ultimately ourselves.
God’s living water out-identifies the names we take on because of sexual abuse. His sure hope overcomes the hopelessness of addiction. He out-allures sex and pornography. He overpowers the tug of alcohol. He disarms anger as we see Christ absorbing the guilt of many on the cross. Only in His gospel, the highlight of His glory, do our weights and sins shrink from our eyes. Only then do we stop living as moons revolving around a sad, dark planet and become solar systems revolving around a brilliant galactic center.
The Main Point Of It All
Let’s not forget that this passage is a racing metaphor, and we’re doing something as we race: looking to Jesus. Christ is not merely our example by any means; but if you’re running, the thing you’re looking at the entire time you run must be the thing you’re running toward, or should I say, the One you’re running toward. I believe there are two things to glean from this treatment of sin and weight in Hebrews 12. First, as mentioned before, is that it becomes insignificant only in light of an overwhelmingly greater and more satisfying God, and the pinnacle of this satisfaction is yet to come. Second, the insignificance of sin and weights bearing down on us has a further implication: sin has almost nothing to do with this race.
What I mean by that is that the whole point of this race is to make it to Jesus and enjoy Him forever in future glory to come. Consideration of sin is a very distant second, and it only exist in so much as it hinders us from looking to Jesus and running with endurance. The race set before us is one of faith (trust in God, namely His nature and promises), and sin is not the main player here. I believe the primary goal of speaking about sin and encumbrances this way is ultimately pastoral: to urge us to get our eyes off of sin and onto the One who cures it: Jesus Christ. As we embark on this race with endurance, we cannot constantly cast our eyes on the junk in our backpacks or we’re going to be pathetic runners. Runners keep their eyes forward, not up, down, left, right, or backwards.
As we fight sin, we must always keep in mind the goal of fighting sin: to see and savor Christ all the more by forsaking that which is replacing Him in our lives. Suppose that we succeeded in fully and finally putting down sin. What then? If all you’ve thought of is “personal holiness,” this day might come as a shock. There’s nothing else to wage battle against, so have you kept in mind the point of the battle in the first place? This day will come. It will be when Christ returns and all evil desire is fully and finally put down, freeing our hearts to never again suffer temptation to disbelieve or disobey. On that day, we will forever fulfill our purpose of being created: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We cannot lose sight of this because we are to be doing that now as we fight sin. Not only that, but glorifying and enjoying God is precisely how we fight sin and put it down as well. The end is the means, and it is ultimately a Person: the triune God Himself.
I’d like to leave with this plea. If we’re breathing, then sin and suffering are big, difficult, and overwhelming for us. Jesus made light of incredible shame as He considered the joy set before Him that the Father promised. Let’s look to the gospel of who God is, what He’s done, and what He will do, and let’s watch sin and suffering shrink in light of His greatness. Let’s press on in the race the way Jesus did and by Jesus’ constant enabling grace, always looking to the joy set before us: God Himself. May sin truly be secondary for us, may we lay it aside for the sake of what is primary. May the sins taking up our eyesight which we fear and respect shrink dramatically and become disrespected. And may Christ fill our vision and demand our respect as we run full to the end.