Unhindered Faith (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Evangel – Fall 2012

Articles

Ryan Speaking

Our theme this year is “Unhindered Faith.” Let’s define faith along with the writer of Hebrews as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11:1 NIV). What then is the significance of the adjective “unhindered” in our theme? Let’s begin by reading Hebrews 12:1-3, the three verses from which our theme is drawn:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (NIV)

In order to unpack the meaning of this term “unhindered” I’d like to suggest that we work through three levels of interpretation: 1) Text; 2) Context; 3) and Encounter. All three of these hermeneutical steps are imperative if we are to truly grasp the meaning of the term “unhindered,” and, by implication, the meaning of our theme for the year.

Text

Let’s begin with the text. By this I mean let’s look at the word itself that is in question — “unhindered.” The easiest place to begin is with an array of English translations. This doesn’t really help us come to our own conclusions, but it is interesting to see the choices that other scholars have made. It’s important for us to recognize that not every Bible translates the text using the same methodology. Some translations seek to be true to the individual words of the text (these word-for-word translations are sometimes called “literal”); some translations seek to be true to the meaning of the text in its entirety (these thought-for-thought translations are sometimes called “dynamic”); and some translations seek to be true more to the existential impact of the text (these more poetic translations are typically called “free”). I use four translations in my study. From the most ‘literal’ to the most ‘free’; they are: The NRSV; the NIV; the NLT; and The Message. So let’s take a brief look at each:

The NRSV translates the word in question as “weight” — “Let us throw off every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”

The NIV, which is the translation from which our theme is drawn, uses the term “hinders” — “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

a witness is never a passive spectator; a witness is an active representative of Jesus Christ … the crowd described … is not so much watching us as we are watching them

The NLT, like the NRSV, applies the term “weight” — “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress.”

Finally, The Message takes great license, it would seem, and translates the word in question with the phrase “extra spiritual fat” — “Strip down, start running — and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins.”

This at least gives us a start. Now we must do our own work and come to our own conclusions. In Greek — the original language of this text and the entire New Testament — the word that the NIV translates “hinder” is ogkon. The first step in the research process should be to look in the Greek-English Lexicon. A lexicon provides us with a list of almost every word used in the New Testament, along with their meaning(s). Now every word has a possible range of meanings, so it’s important that we find the correct meaning for this particular text. In this case the task is simple: the lexicon offers a definition and then cites Hebrews 12:1 immediately following; we can be sure that the meaning provided is the one that we’re seeking. The definition is this: “whatever is prominent, protuberance [a thing that protrudes], bulk, mass; (hence), a burden, weight, or encumbrance.” All of this, in my mind, confirms the choices of our translators. But we must go one step further — not so much to prove the validity of our translations, but so that we might hear the word ourselves with something of the same impact that it would have carried for its original recipients. This requires that we move from text — the first level of interpretation — to context — the second level of interpretation.

Context

Arena

The question we want to answer in this second level of interpretation is how would the original recipients have heard and understood this word “hindrance”? What sort of connotations did the word carry? This requires that we dig into the historical and cultural references that are shared between the author and audience. The first thing we should notice is that the three verses are an extended metaphor.

The author is writing about “running a race” before “a great cloud of witnesses.” Clearly we aren’t actually running a race, but the author uses this common cultural reference as a means for explaining the spiritual life. Now if I were to explain the spiritual life in terms of hockey, and my words were to be read a thousand years from now (when hockey, I’m sorry to say, will no longer exist), it would be imperative for the reader of my words to do some historical work to understand what hockey was all about. The more the reader understands hockey, the more he or she will understand my spiritual metaphor. The same is true here.

Now we must move beyond the lexicons and to the commentaries. Here we can draw on the historical research of experienced biblical scholars. For example, William Lane informs that, “the metaphor of running a race is taken from the stadium, and reflects the recognized pre-eminence of the footrace in the Greek games. The footrace was one of the five contests of the pentathlon in the great [Olympic] games and always came first.” We should be picturing something like (maybe even precisely) the ancient stadium in Athens where the original Olympic Games were held from 776 BC to 393 AD.

the author is also calling us to take off any extra hindrance – even things that aren’t intrinsically sinful

The spectators, in the metaphor of course, are the great cloud of witnesses described in chapter 11 of Hebrews, sometimes called the “Faith Chapter.” We should note one significant difference between the spectators of the Olympic games and the spectators that make up the “great cloud of witnesses.” In New Testament terms, a witness is never a passive spectator; a witness is an active representative of Jesus Christ. As such, the crowd described in Hebrews 11 is not so much watching us as we are watching them—they are the examples of faith well lived.

In light of all this, how should we understand our word “hindrance”? William Lane tells us that the phrase “throw off everything that hinders” refers to “the usual preparation of stripping for a race.” F.F. Bruce goes one step further: “Not only must the athlete rid himself of all heavy objects carried about the body [such as clothes] but [also] of excess bodily weight.” The athlete of ancient Greece was to run with only the bare essentials (pun intended). I hope now that our various translations are taking on a little more life for you; it’s certainly easier to see now where Peterson gets his idea to translate our term in The Message as “excess spiritual fat”! In many ways, I think his translation gets closest to the original impact: “Strip down, start running — and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins.”

There is one more thing to note before moving on to the third level of interpretation. The author makes a distinction between “extra spiritual fat” and “parasitic sins.” I think this is significant. We could assume that the “hindrance” or “weight” we are to leave behind is contrary to the will of God (and therefore sin). However, I don’t think this is warranted by the structure of the sentence. Clearly we are to leave behind the “sin that entangles,” but the author is also calling us to take off any extra hindrance — even things that aren’t intrinsically sinful. F.F. Bruce comments on the distinction by writing: “There are many things which may be perfectly all right in their own way, but which hinder a competitor in the race of faith; they are ‘weights’ which must be laid aside. It may well be that what is a hindrance to one entrant in this spiritual contest is not a hindrance to another; each must learn for himself what in his case is a weight or impediment.” Therefore, not only should we set aside sin; we must also rid ourselves of anything that might slow us down.

Encounter

Finally, the third level of interpretation brings us to the heart of the hermeneutical process. The purpose of reading the Bible is not the purpose that drives the literary critic; nor is the purpose of reading the Bible the purpose that drives the historian; as Christians, we read the Bible for one purpose only: to fix our eyes on Jesus. The Bible is written in ancient languages that should be studied; it is written in ancient times that need to be understood. But, above both of these, the Bible is a place of encounter between God and His people — it is a privileged meeting-ground between the divine and the human.

In truth, there is no real understanding of Scripture that does not transform the reader

In this third and final level of interpretation we are no longer asking how the original recipients might have heard this text; we are now asking: what word might God be speaking to me, to us, right now? The presupposition for such an audacious question is rooted in the belief that the words of Scripture point to and participate in the living Word of God Who is Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Spirit of God Who once breathed life into the author of this text is now living in us, working to transform our minds and our hearts into the image of Christ. In truth, there is no real understanding of Scripture that does not transform the reader.

Now we no longer stand over the text subjecting it to critical analysis; now the text must stand over us, with our own inadequacies and faults laid bare. Now the text poses questions of us: What is hindering your spiritual race? What weight remains in your life that must be laid aside? Are you out of breath because you refuse to shed that “extra spiritual fat”? Have you fixed your eyes on Jesus, ready to abandon every other distraction? The text speaks. Are you listening?

Ryan is currently Registrar and Instructor in Theology at Alberta Bible College. He holds degrees from Alberta Bible College, the University of Calgary, and McGill University. His academic interests lie at the intersection of theology and spirituality, and most of his scholarly research is focused on the work of Thomas Merton. Most recently he has published an article in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and a chapter in the book, Thomas Merton: Monk on the Edge. Ryan is married to his beautiful wife Jani, and is the proud Father of Rowan and Danae.