Hebrews 12:1-3 – Step Four – Closer Study of Context

Let’s now look at how Hebrews 12:1-3 relates to its historical/cultural, literary and theological contexts.

1. Examine the text’s historical and cultural context.

We can begin with the historical/cultural context of this text.

(1) Learn what you can about the history of the text.

In our introductory survey, we learned that not much is known about the history of the book of Hebrews.

The author was well-educated and seems to have known Paul’s colleague Timothy. He may well have written Hebrews before the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.

(2) Review the history in the text.

We cannot be sure who the original readers of Hebrews were. It seems likely that that were primarily Christians who came from a Jewish background. They may have been part of the church in Rome.

Evidently, they were drifting spiritually (chapter 2:1), were “dull of understanding” (chapter 5:11) and were tempted to abandon Christianity (chapter 3:12).

(3) Study any aspects of culture that are relevant to the text.

One aspect of culture mentioned in the text is the metaphor of running a race.

An Internet search turned up a short National Geographic video on athletics in ancient Greece.[1]

A short article from the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains some helpful information, namely, that “at the core of Greek athletics was an individual’s physical endeavor to overtake an opponent. For this reason, sports in ancient Greece generally excluded team competitions and performances aimed at setting records.”[2]

A Wikipedia article, “Running in Ancient Greece,” gives information about the types of foot races that were common in ancient Greek games. The “Dolichos” was a race 20 to 24 stades in length, or about two and a half miles. Interestingly, the marathon was not an event in the Greek games.[3]

One could also do some research on crucifixion in the first century and the pain and shame that this form of execution involved.

2. Examine the text’s literary context.

We will move on now to look at the literary context of Hebrews 12:1-3.

(1) Identify the genre of the book in which the text appears.

In our introductory survey, we saw that the genre of Hebrews is that it is a kind of written sermon that was sent as a letter. According to Fee and Stuart, Hebrews has been described as “three parts tract and one part letter.”[4]

(2) Use principles appropriate to the book’s genre to study the text.

Here we will use the principles recommended by Gordon Fee in his New Testament Exegesis.

(3) Determine how the text fits into the overall scheme of the book and into the author’s argument.

Fee says that to determine the literary context of an epistle or letter, one must “learn to think in paragraphs.”[5] He recommends tracing the author’s argument paragraph by paragraph.

In our introductory survey of the text, we saw that Hebrews 12:1-3 is part of a larger section of the book that begins at chapter 10:19. In the outline we presented, the section in chapter 10:19 through 13:25 was titled, “Continue to Have Faith and Endure.”

In his introductory material on Hebrews, Daniel Wallace, has the following outline:

II. The Practical Outworking of Christ’s Superiority (10:19–13:17)

A. Exhortation to Enter the New Sanctuary (10:19-31)

B. Exhortation to Endure Persecution (10:32-39)

C. Examples of Faith (11:1-40)

D. Exhortation to Endure Chastening (12:1-29)

1. The Supreme Example of Christ (12:1-4)

2. Chastening as Evidence of Sonship (12:5-11)

3. Chastening Necessary for Sanctification (12:12-17)

Fifth Warning: Don’t Deny (12:18-29)[6]

In this outline, Wallace emphasizes the theme endurance, which is helpful. However, he doesn’t clearly show the connection between chapters 11 and 12:1-3.

The Reformation Study Bible does a better job of showing that connection in its outline for this part of Hebrews:


A. A Superior Covenant Implies Greater Responsibility (10:19–39)

B. Examples of the Life of Faith (ch. 11)

C. Persevering by Focusing Faith on Jesus (12:1, 2)

D. True Children of God Persevere in Faith and Accept Discipline (12:3–17)

E. Coming to the Heavenly Jerusalem and Accepting the Voice of God Who Speaks There (12:18–29)[7]

As I trace the argument in this section, I see the statement about the need for endurance in 10:36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”

Then, on the basis of the Scripture quotations in verses 37-38, in verse 39 the author mentions two groups: “those who shrink back and are destroyed” and “those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Clearly, he is saying that faith is needed to endure.

Then the writer shows the importance of faith in chapter 11, with its Old Testament examples of those who lived by faith. In verses 39-40 of chapter 11 he summarizes: “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.”

The writer then moves immediately to his exhortation in our text. In light of the fact that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (men and women of faith), he urges us to run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Thus 12:1-3 is an exhortation to continue to endure in faith, following Jesus and the Old Testament examples of faith.

3. Investigate the text’s theological context.

Now we should consider the theological context of Hebrews 12:1-3

(1) Locate the text in the history of redemption (the Bible’s salvation story) that culminates in Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12:1-3 relates to the time of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

In this time God’s kingdom (or saving rule) has already arrived in the person and work of Christ and at the same time God’s kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.

In this time believers can look back to what Christ has accomplished through his death, resurrection and ascension and also look forward to his return in glory, when they too will be glorified. They have been united to Christ by faith and have received the Holy Spirit.

2) Determine what God is doing or saying in the text and/or what the text reveals about God and his will.

In this text God, through the author, is calling us to run with endurance the race he has set before us. As we do that, he is calling us to look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

This text relates to what is sometimes called “progressive sanctification.”[8] As the Holy Spirit works in us and we put forth effort, we are increasingly being conformed to the image of Christ.

(3) Consider how the text might relate to the creeds and confessions of the Christian church.

Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This obviously supports statements about Christ that appear in the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed states, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”[9]

Hebrews 12:1 relates to the teaching of the confessions about sanctification.

According to Article 25 of the Belgic Confession, “We continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to the will of God.”[10]

As mentioned in Step One, Answer 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of how we are to “never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.”[11]

The Canons of Dort in Canon V, Article 2 says that “the daily sins of weakness” of believers cause them “to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”[12]

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/athletics-ancient-greece/, accessed 5/17/19.

  2. https://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/hd/athl/hd_athl.htm, accessed 5/17/19.

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_in_Ancient_Greece, accessed 5/17/19.

  4. Fee, Gordon D. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2014. Kindle Edition. 59.

  5. Fee, Gordon D. New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. 3rd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. Print. 19.

  6. https://bible.org/seriespage/19-hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline, accessed 5/18/19.

  7. Sproul, R. C., ed. The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015. Print. 2196.

  8. Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. Print. 987.

  9. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/apostles-creed, accessed 8/28/19.

  10. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession, accessed 7/25/19.

  11. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism.

  12. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/canons-dort, accessed 7/25/19.