The Bible is filled with figurative language. We cannot read it with understanding unless we take this into account. Being aware of this fact, when we do read it, its meaning becomes much clearer to us than if we attempted to read everything literally.
There are portions of scripture that are filled with one figure after another. Metaphors, hyperbole, simile, allegories – each rich in symbolism that clarifies and amplifies the message being conveyed. Prophetic and apocryphal literature abounds in code-words and symbols that serve as signs pointing to greater realities while at the same time obscuring the message from those unskilled in Biblical history, poetry and prophecy, i.e., the enemies of God’s people for whom alone the message was intended.
“A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. Metaphor is a type of analogy and is closely related to other rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance including allegory, hyperbole, and simile.” (Wikipedia).
The New Testament has its share of figurative language. Some of the terms applied to Christians lead us to a deeper understanding of the nature of the life we are expected to lead. For instance, the writer of the Hebrew letter compares the Christian life to 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,” Hebrews 12:1
This passage paints a classic scene of the Panhellenic games of ancient Greece, of which the Olympiad was one. There are the spectators – the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11), who themselves have competed, won their crowns and are observing the games as they continue. The particular game named in this verse is the footrace, an apt metaphor for the Christian life.
One must enter the race in order to be able to compete. Many are running and getting nowhere because they are not even in the arena where the real race is being run. There are other races that compete with the Christians race also. There are those who put everything they have into running only to realize too late that the track they have been running on goes nowhere but in circles. There is, also, the proverbial “rat race” that engages so many of us. We need to remember the words of wisdom of the great philosopher, Lily Tomlin, who said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat!”
In several different ways the Christian life is like competing in a race. For instance, in order to be able to compete one must be fit or prepared to run. The writer makes allusion to getting ready to run in this verse. For the runner, this meant PREPARATION. The idea of laying aside every weight refers to athletes in training strapping weights around their ankles so that as they ran their leg muscles would be strengthened and their endurance increased. When time for the race came, the weights would be discarded so they would feel light and could run more swiftly.
The writer encourages Christians to lay aside the sin that “clings so closely to us.” This, too, is an allusion to the ancient games. Before the ancient athletes ran, they would take off all their clothing! They knew by experience what is known by scientific testing today – that clothing presents a degree of wind resistance or “drag” which slows a runner down just a bit – perhaps just enough to lose a race. Besides their admiration of the human form, in the Grecian games, the athletes competed completely unencumbered by clothing – in the nude!
Now, I am not recommending that Christians literally follow this practice! For the Christian, this would mean that we rid of ourselves of anything that would hinder our progress through life. The cares of the world, the desire for riches, seeking for worldly approval all must be laid aside since they distract us from the goal. The practice of sin is a deterrent to the effective running of the race of life. It drags us down, distracts and discourages us and will invariably cause us to lose the crown of life for which we are competing.
Another essential for the athlete is PERSISTENCE. He or she must keep on keeping on until he crosses the finish line. So it must be with the Christian.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
We cannot become like the hare in the fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare.” You remember, he got so far along in the race, and, being confident in his ability to outrun the tortoise, decided to lie down and take a nap. Too bad for him that the tortoise had what he lacked – the determination to keep going until the end. In the Christian life there is no letting up. There is no time to “take it easy” or to let down our guard.
There are so many who start the race but soon fade away like the morning dew. They want the blessings of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life, but lack the commitment to continue through to the end. When they find the going difficult they fall away. The lack the foresight to have counted the cost to see if they have the willingness to pay the price – to suffer the hardships and pain of running successfully.
Another requirement for successfully running the Christians race is that one compete LAWFULLY. Paul told Timothy…
“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5).
There are no shortcuts or substitutes to the Christian life. We are not permitted to run by our own rules. We cannot assume God will be pleased with us doing whatever pleases us – running on our own track by our own rules. We don’t enter or run the race on our own terms. One must first enter the race, becoming a Christian by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. When one reaches the point where he is willing to completely trust him for all he promises, repents of his sin and enters into relationship with him by baptism, he is enrolled in the race. To attempt to enter in any other way does not get one into the race!
The Christian race must be run with PURPOSE. From the point of entrance one must pursue the goal with faithfulness and determination and with a clear vision of what the objective of the race is. The common reason for living the Christian life so often stated is “To get to heaven when I die.” But if that is the objective, we have the wrong idea of the purpose for which we are running the race. The Christian life is not about us! We are not the center of the universe. God is not our servant, nor is he a genie granting us our wishes. Our real objective is that of becoming more and more like the Savior. In trusting in God as he trusted him, living like he lived, serving like he served and even dying like he died if it should come to that, we manifest his likeness and thus show forth the glory of God in the world and fulfill the Father’s expectation of us. This is our real objective. We must keep on this track by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2).
We cannot run the race successfully by depending in our own strength to carry us through. We must obtain the STRENGTH to endure to the end by going to God and asking him for all we need.
“For who is God, but the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?—
the God who equipped me with strength
and made my way blameless.
He made my feet like the feet of a deer
and set me secure on the heights.” (Psalm 18:31-33).
Here is how Paul expressed it in urging the Ephesian Christians look to God for the strength they needed. He asks…
“…that [God] according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16-19).
Were it not for God’s strength to see us through to the goal we could never endure all the trials and hardships of the Christian life. With his help, however, the outcome is never in doubt. We will overcome all obstacles! We will win the imperishable crown! We will celebrate the victory!