"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons:
'My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.'
Endure your trials as "discipline" God treats you as sons. For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it."
One of the first things that stands out is that the author of Hebrews uses the term "discipline" eight times in this passage. Each use of the word is based on the Greek word paideia, which refers to the training of children or instruction in growing in virtue. This word is only used here in Hebrews and two other places—Eph. 6:4 regarding how fathers should raise their children and 2 Tim. 3:16 describing how scripture is useful for “training in righteousness". It is different from the more common New Testament usage of manthano which means “to learn”, and is the root of mathetes, from which we get “disciple”.
It is obvious from the author’s choice of paideia and the context of the passage that he wishes to compare and contrast the actions of our earthly fathers to God the Father, and children to being "sons of God". On one hand we are directed to see in our fathers a typology of the Father. Children often do not understand that discipline is for their own good. Depending on the child’s age they may not even recognize discipline as anything other than not getting our way. I’m reminded of when my daughter Mary was not quite two years old. She was set on sticking her finger into the wall outlet. At first I would gently pick her up and move her, but she was determined. Eventually I had to reach down and slap her hand to get the point across. A father’s discipline can seem harsh, but it is most often motivated by love and is done for our benefit. On the other hand the author also points out that our earthly fathers’ discipline done in a way “that seems right to them” which implies that sometimes it is done imperfectly as we are all imperfect. God’s discipline, while we may not understand it at the time, is done so that “we may share in his holiness.”
Turning to the beginning of this passage we can see the role that discipline has in running a race. Ask any athlete, particularly endurance runners, and they will tell you how important discipline is to being successful. We are exhorted to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin”, to “persevere in running the race” while we look at the example of Jesus who “endured the cross” and “endured opposition” so we “do not grow weary and lose heart”. The author uses very deliberate language all of which evokes the idea of endurance requiring discipline. The footnote in the New American Bible points out that the Greek word used to describe the way sin “clings to us”, euperistatos, can also be translated as “easily distracts us”.
It is at this point that I want to draw attention to the “great cloud of witnesses”. Who are they and what is their role? We are told that they are “surrounding” us, but we would be wrong to assume that these witnesses are mere spectators looking on as we run the race. Turning again to the Greek we see that the author of Hebrews uses perikeimai to describe their relationship to us. Although translated here as “surrounding” this word is found only a couple other times in the New Testament. In Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:2, Jesus warns those who cause “little ones” to sin. He says it would be better for them to be thrown in the sea with a “milestone hung around their neck”. Likewise Acts 28:20, tells of Paul preaching while in a Roman prison “wearing these chains”. It is perikeimai that is translated in these passages as “hung around” and “wearing”. From this perspective we can now see that the witnesses mentioned here are not spectators, but rather seem more like participants. We are surrounded by these witness who are connected to us as if partners in a three-legged race.
Who are these witnesses? Verse 1 begins with the keyword “therefore”, an adjective implying that whatever follows is linked to that which preceded it. We must remember that when the Letter to the Hebrews was written it did not have the chapter and verse breaks that we have in our bibles today. We must then look to Hebrews 11, listing many of the Old Testament heroes of the faith, and specifically verse 40 which states, “God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect.” Do you understand what that means? The saints in heaven are mystically untied to us not only to help us run the race for our sakes but in some way for their sakes as well. That’s the glory of the mystical Body of Christ. When one member succeeds we all benefit. In 1 Corinthians 6:14-16, Paul warns us that when one member of the Body of Christ sins we are all affected. So to, when one member endures and runs the good race we all prosper.
We turn once more to the call in Hebrews 12:1 to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to (easily distracts) us”. It is now obvious that while we must resist sin its hold on us, to the author of Hebrews, is not nearly as strong as the bond we have with the Body of Christ (euperistatos/clinging, distracting vs. perikeimai/hung around, encompassing). So as we run our race, seeking through discipline to follow the path laid down for us by Christ, let us not hesitate to call upon the strength and merits of that “great cloud of witnesses” running right alongside of us.