Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
Last time, we began our discussion of Christian liberty by looking at a positive question to ask: Will this choice bring me spiritual benefit? Today, I want to look at the other side of the coin by asking, “Will this slow me down in the race?” This is the question the writer of Hebrews invites us to ask.
The word for “race” here is agōn, which is where we get our English word “agony.” I ran track in high school and college, and it is the most agonizing sport I have ever participated in. That is why the agōn requires hupomonē, which has been translated as “endurance.” The word hupomonē has the idea of “staying under”—staying under the pressure and agony of an event until you have run it to the end. The race that Hebrews is talking about isn’t an easy thing; it demands intense self-control and determination.
I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of people begin their races at a sprint, only to collapse before they reach the end. It is a sad thing to think about, but we need to remember how easy it is for our endurance to fail. But we also need to remember the positive examples of those who were strong to the end. My dad died at 91 years old, and he was still teaching the Bible in his 90th year. He ran all the way to the very end. That’s an amazing kind of endurance.
So, how are we going to endure to the end? How are we going to run the race in such a way that we won’t collapse, embarrass the Lord, bring shame upon ourselves, and dishonor the name of Christ with some great failure? Hebrews 12:1 lists two things to lay aside: sins and encumbrances.
Because the author mentions both things separately, we can see that these words aren’t talking about the same thing. And we know what sin is—so what does “encumbrance” mean, if it doesn’t mean sin?
Essentially, an encumbrance is anything that slows you down or weighs on you as you are running. The Greek word is ongkos, which means “bulk.” It’s not sin, but it is unnecessary weight. It’s like a well-trained sprinter getting in the blocks with ankle weights and an overcoat on. It’s not against the rules, but it just doesn’t make sense. That extra weight is going to slow the sprinter down and keep him from coming in first.
Encumbrances can look like any number of things. It can look like too much time on the internet or on gaming consoles. It can look like taking in too much empty media, or media that is too irreverent. For example, I once wrote a blog post about a popular pastor who seemed to reference “South Park” in every sermon I listened to, and who could rattle off the lyrics to all kinds of contemporary songs. And I wondered to myself—even if his media consumption wasn’t sinful, wasn’t it likely to slow him down in the race? Did he really need to carry that bulk around in his mind, where it occupied space that could be used for more precious things?
Endurance is already a difficult and painful process. Don’t allow anything into your life that will only serve to slow you down, restrain you, drain your energy, and dampen your enthusiasm for the things of God. And certainly don’t admit anything that threatens to turn from a simple encumbrance into something that completely absorbs and masters you. We will talk more about that principle from 1 Corinthians 6:12 next time.
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