Updated: Jun 27
“A Lesson from the Greek Olympic Games”
By Richard Allen – June 26, 2023
The Jewish Christians the writer of Hebrews addressed, were a very proud people. This was true, even though these Believing Jews most likely lived outside the land of Israel. Still, they were especially proud of their Jewish Heritage. We know this from Jesus’ own interactions with them during His earthly ministry. They often referred with pride to being the Children of Abraham, or cited Moses, their great Covenant Giver, at Sinai. These Believers were clearly name-droppers, believing that citing the Patriarchs Abraham, Jacob or Moses was the “trump card” to end any argument. So, it’s especially important to understand what the writer to the Hebrews was saying to them regarding the Priestly Ministry of Jesus Christ! The writer name-dropped right back at them, making clear that the Lord Jesus was better than all the Heroes in their storied Jewish history.
The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t stop there, in chapter 11 he made these Hebrew Christians aware that it wasn’t just Abraham, Moses, the Angelic Messengers or even Melchizedek whom Jesus Christ now superseded, but all the Heroes of the Old Testament recorded in chapter 11. He argues while all these Old Testament saints Already had been called and used by God, they too were waiting for what was Not Yet, that is the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to atone for sin and bring in a “New and Better Covenant.” Every one of these men and women “died in faith,” waiting for the Promised Messiah. They Did Not receive the Promised One, but waited for Him! So, now that the Lord Jesus had come, why would they ever think about going back? Talk about being a name-dropper, the writer to the Hebrews parades all of the big names from Israel’s history in chapter 11, subjugating their honor by stating THEY ALL LOOKED FORWARD TO JESUS, THE PROMISED MESSIAH!
In chapter 12, the writer metaphorically lines up all these Jewish Heroes at the finish line. Having finished their races, they now rest in Christ, awaiting His Second Coming to restore all things. The picture used is of the Olympic Games, held in the Greco-Roman World, with all the great heroes who competed in the past, now sitting in the stands of the Coliseum, cheering on those currently running the race. What an amazing scene is recorded for us:
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. . . . And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 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” (Hebrews 11:32-34, 39-40; 12:1-2).
These “non-Palestinian Jews” to whom Hebrews was written, were also called “Hellenistic Jews,” that is, Jews living in the Greco-Roman World. So, they were familiar with the Olympiads that were still popular across the so-called civilized world in which they lived. When the writer of Hebrews exhorts them to pay attention to the “great crowd of witnesses” who were assembled in the stands, all watching them run the race, it puts everything into perspective. They were not told to “run backwards,” trying to relive the life and experiences of those who ran before them, NO, THEY WERE TOLD TO RUN AHEAD! It’s important for us to grasp this, as many of these first century Jews were in danger of “going backwards, returning to the weak and beggarly elements in their history,” AND CEASE RUNNING TOWARD THE PRIZE AHEAD OF THEM! And the crowd of witnesses that was cheering them on, were not merely spectators, no, they too had run the race, and were now cheering all of them on, to keep moving forward to their “heavenly reward!”
Then, to encourage them even more, the writer to the Hebrews tells them that Our Lord Jesus was Himself in that race, and that He had finished it before them. Therefore, this Jesus was the “author and perfector” of their faith! He too had endured trials, slander and persecution – UNTO DEATH, and now as the Ultimate Victor was seated next to God the Father on High! That was amazing encouragement directed their way. And as Jesus had “endured the cross, despising the shame,” the writer tells them to patiently endure the trials before them – Just like the Saints from the Hall of Faith in Hebrews chapter 11 did, AND LIKE THEIR LORD JESUS! They weren’t asked to do anything above and beyond, but rather, to Run the Race with Patience that was Set Before them. Like the great crowd of witnesses and Jesus, finishing the race is assured, because of Jesus! Here’s how the writer encourages them to endure hardships as God’s Children:
“Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. . . It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:3-5; 7-8; 12-17).
It's important for us to notice that the writer was stridently exhorting them to receive God’s discipline as Sons and Daughters. We have seen this warning throughout the first 11 chapters: These Hebrew Believers were struggling with sin! And not just any old sin, it was the Sin of Unbelief (Hebrews 3:12). Later he tells them plainly that by their unbelief they were in danger of “Shrinking back from the living God” (Hebrews 10:39), and then nails down how critical faith is by reminding them that: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). At the start of this book he had asked them rhetorically: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation” (Hebrews 2:3). He also reminded them of those Israelites who had been freed from bondage in Egypt only to “provoke God with their unbelief” in the wilderness, every last one of them dying, being ”prevented from entering the promised land” (Hebrews 3:16-17). In fact, “God swore in His wrath that they would NOT enter into His rest” (Hebrews 4:3). I also want to point out that the writer’s admonitions were not all negative, he also encouraged them:
“For we do not have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
In one of the most troubling portions of all Scripture, the writer to these Hebrew Believers warns them that they are still “baby Christians,” in need of milk, still struggling to understand the basics of the faith. Then he goes on to warn them of Apostacy (falling away) and being only “fruitless professors who receive God’s blessings, taste of His heavenly gifts and partake of the Holy Spirit, YET STILL WERE WITHOUT FRUIT” (Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12). The writer pulls no punches, and reminds them that “If they fall away, it’s impossible to restore them again to repentance, since they crucify again the Son of God to their own harm and hold Him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6). So when you hear the writer talk about there being “no more sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:18, 26), and that there is only One Way to enter within the Veil, that is Christ’s flesh (Hebrews 10:20), it should be easy for us to grasp what the “sin was that so easily beset these Hebrew Believers: TURNING AGAIN TO JUDAISM AND ITS SHADOWS, AND AWAY FROM CHRIST! (Hebrews 12:3). It is of some interest that he uses Esau to warn them NOT TO FALL INTO UNBELIEF, referring to Esau as “sexually immoral” (Hebrews 12:16). This is a bit strange, as there is no reference point in the Genesis story about Esau’s sexual exploits. I think the writer is using Esau as an example of a man who allows “Instant Gratification” TO DESTROY HIS OWN SOUL! “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal” (Hebrews 12:15-16). The connection is obvious, Esau’s desire for a single meal is likened to intense and uncontrolled sexual desires.
In closing, we need to remember that these Hebrew Christians were doubting the “priestly atoning work” of Jesus, and ready to return to the practice of Judaism with its priesthood, rituals and sacrifices. This was godless Unbelief, and would prevent any who followed this dangerous path from “entering into God’s Eternal Rest!” These admonitions were not just for those first century Hebrews, but for us who profess the name of Jesus. We need to fear, lest an “evil heart of unbelief” deceive us into going back to our own version of Judaism! Those Churches who keep the faithful forever dependent on ineffective sacrifices that often need to be repeated, are in the same peril as those to whom this book was written. Faithful Christians must hold fast to Jesus, the Mediator of a Better Covenant. He’s the author and finisher of our faith. Returning to human religion with all its trappings and props will keep us from finishing the race!
Soli Deo Gloria!