Hebrews 12:1-3 – Step Five – Review of Commentaries

Now let’s review what Bible commentaries and other literature have to say about Hebrews 12:1-3.

1. Review what several Bible commentaries say about the text.

In surveying various commentaries, we can look at their answers to questions that arise in interpreting each verse. In each case, I will look first at online commentaries, and then at more recent commentaries.

Hebrews 12:1

– Who are the witnesses and in what sense are they witnesses? Are they witnesses in the sense of spectators who are watching our race or witnesses who testify, urging us to run by faith?

The commentaries agree that the witnesses (Greek martures) are the men and women of faith listed in chapter 11. According to Ellicott (on Bible Hub), “The Greek fathers rightly understood [the word] to signify those who bear witness….”[1] Meyer and the Expositor’s Greek Testament (also on Bible Hub) agree that the witnesses are not just spectators but people who actively testify.

Among other older commentators, John Brown[2] and Lindsay[3] favor the meaning “spectators,” while Calvin says that the virtues of the witnesses “are so many testimonies to confirm us, that we, relying on them as our guides and associates, ought to go onward to God with more alacrity.”[4] Moffatt[5] seems to agree with this. A couple of commentators argue that both meanings are present.

Among more modern commentators, Ellingworth favors the idea that the witnesses are “spectators in a stadium.”[6]

Bruce disagrees. In his words, they are witnesses “in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith. It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement.”[7] Lane likewise says, “In the NT, however, a witness is never merely a passive spectator but an active participant who confirms and attests the truth as a confessing witness….”[8] O’Brien too agrees that the witnesses are more than just spectators.[9]

– What is the meaning of the “weight” that is to be laid aside?

On Bible Hub, Ellicott says the word used here is “best taken in a general sense, as denoting anything that encumbers, and thus renders the athlete less fitted for the race.” He understands this to be referring to “Judaising practices which they were tempted to observe.”[10]

Meyer, also on Bible Hub, has this to say: “The clinging of the readers to external Judaism is certainly, in particular, thought of as the hindrance. Yet the expression is quite general, and sin in the strict sense of the term, which is immediately after quite specially emphasized, is likewise included thereunder.”[11] The Expositor’s Bible comments: “The Christian runner must rid himself even of innocent things which might retard him.”[12]

Bruce agrees with this interpretation: “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.”[13]

Other commentators, such as Attridge, see the author’s reference to sin as explaining what that weight to be set aside is.[14] In the words of O’Brien, “If the conjunction ‘and’ that links the two expressions is epexegetical, then the author is urging them to ‘put off every hindrance, namely, sin which so easily besets’. On this view, sin is the impediment.”[15]

– How should we understand the “sin that clings so closely”?

The words “that clings so closely” translate a single Greek word. There is disagreement as to what the word means. According to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Bible Hub), “More probably it is to be taken in the active sense, as in the A. V. and the R. V. of the sin which either (α) ‘presses closely about us to attack us;’ or (β) which ‘closely clings (tenaciter inhaerens, Erasmus) to us’ like an enfolding robe (statos chiton). The latter is almost certainly the true meaning, and is suggested by the participle apothemenoi, “stripping off” (comp. Ephesians 4:22).”[16]

O’Brien writes: “Our author is not referring to some specific sin, such as apostasy, which would disqualify a Christian from running at all. Rather, he is speaking of sin itself (the definite article is generic), so a general meaning is probably in view. The adjective rendered that so easily entangles specifies how sin impedes one’s progress in the race.”[17]

Attridge has a similar comment: “The adjective is most likely related to the noun περίστασις, which can be used of any “circumstance,” especially one that is distressing. Taken actively, the adjective would thus refer to that which readily “surrounds” or “besets” in a hostile sense.”[18]

Hebrews 12:2

– How should the two words used to describe Jesus in the first part of the verse be translated?

As noted in the closer study of the text’s content, some different translations of these words are: “the author and finisher of our faith” (KJV), “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (ESV) and “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (NIV).

The commentaries point out that the word translated “founder” or “pioneer” also appears in Hebrews 2:10. On Bible Hub, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges notes that in Acts 3:15; Acts 5:31 the word “is rendered ‘a Prince,’ as in Isaiah 30:4 (LXX.). By His faithfulness (Hebrews 3:2) he became our captain and standard-bearer on the path of faith.”[19]

Attridge points to the racing metaphor in the text and says that Christ “is the leader of those who run faith’s race.” But then he also notes that the two Greek terms used to describe Christ relate to the idea of beginning and ending, so that the meaning of the first word “also carries connotations of ‘founder’ or ‘initiator.’”[20] The NIV’s translation (“pioneer and perfecter”) seems to bring out this idea of Jesus “blazing the trail” of faith and also perfecting faith.

Attridge’s comment regarding Christ as the “perfecter of faith” is illuminating:

“His perfecting activity consists first in the creation through his death and exaltation of a new possibility of access to God (10:19) in a new covenantal relationship. Of equal importance is the fact that he provides a perfectly adequate model of what life under that covenant involves. Thus the “faith” (πίστεως) that Christ inaugurates and brings to perfect expression is not the content of Christian belief, but the fidelity and trust that he himself exhibited in a fully adequate way and that his followers are called upon to share. Once again, the intimate connection of the two polyvalent epithets for Christ is apparent. It is precisely as the one who perfectly embodies faith that he serves as the ground of its possibility in others … and the model they are to follow….”[21]

Lane agrees with Attridge and others that faith here refers to trust rather than to a body of belief. He writes:

“In the context of 11:1–40, ‘faith’ must be understood absolutely, as the believing response to God demonstrated by the host of witnesses and preeminently by Jesus himself…. The poignant description as a whole points to Jesus as the perfect embodiment of faith, who exercised faith heroically. By bringing faith to complete expression, he enabled others to follow his example.”[22]

– How does the second half of verse 2 relate to the first half of verse 2?

In the second half of verse 2, the writer describes Jesus as the one “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” (ESV). How does this relate to the description of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” in the first part of the verse?

Several commentaries note that it was when he “endured the cross, despising the shame” that Jesus showed himself to be the pioneer and perfecter of faith. In the words of F. F. Bruce,

“The whole life of Jesus was characterized by unbroken and unquestioning faith in his heavenly Father, and never more so than when in Gethsemane he committed himself to his Father’s hands for the ordeal of the cross with the words: ‘not what I will, but what thou wilt’ (Mark 14:36). It was sheer faith in God, unsupported by any visible or tangible evidence, that carried him through the taunting, the scourging, the crucifying, and the more bitter agony of rejection, desertion, and dereliction.”[23]

– What is the joy that was set before Christ?

The older commentator Lindsay says that the phrase is “descriptive, not of what Christ sacrificed in submitting to the cross, but of what He anticipated as the reward of His voluntary humiliation and endurance of a painful death.” When Christ was seated at the right hand of God this was “the obtaining of the joy whose anticipation led Him to encounter the cross, and to disregard all the shame connected with it.”[24]

Likewise, F. F. Bruce writes: “His exaltation [at the right hand of God], with all that it means for his people’s well-being and for the triumph of God’s purpose in the universe, is ‘the joy set before him,’ for the sake of which he submitted to shame and death.”[25]

O’Brien lists several reasons this interpretation is likely to be correct. In particular, he points out that in the wider context, the men and women of Hebrews 11 look in faith to an unseen reward and fulfillment and are sustained by that faith. And in the same way, Jesus looked in faith to the joy set before him-his future enthronement-and was thus enabled to endure the cross and despise the shame.[26]

Hebrews 12:3

– What is the connection of verse 3 to verse 2?

In the opening survey, I noted that many translations ignore the connecting particle “γὰρ” (“for”) which appears at the beginning of verse 3 and connects it with verses 1-2.

The New American Standard Bible does not ignore it, and translates verse 3: “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Some of the commentaries on Bible Hub explain the significance of the “for.” Jamieson-Fausset-Brown say, “For-justifying his exhortation, ‘Looking unto Jesus.’”[27]

Lindsay says the “for” “assigns the danger of fainting as the reason for the looking to Jesus recommended in the previous verse.”[28]

Because the writer doesn’t want his readers to lose heart, he calls them to look to Jesus and to consider what he endured. He endured far greater opposition from sinners than they ever will.

2. Review other relevant literature that sheds light on the text.

I did not find much in the literature I reviewed that shed additional light on this text.

  1. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hebrews/12-1.htm, accessed 8/29/19.
  2. Brown, John. An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: William Oliphant and Company, 1862. 149. https://archive.org/details/anexpositionepi05browgoog/page/n156, accessed 8/29/19.
  3. Lindsay, William. Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: William Oliphant and Company, 1867. 245. https://books.google.com/books?id=0Z5AAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Lindsay,+Lectures+on+the+Epistle+to+the+Hebrews&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj_rpvNpqjkAhUmrlkKHZU-DY8Q6AEwAHoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q=Lindsay%2C%20Lectures%20on%20the%20Epistle%20to%20the%20Hebrews&f=false, accessed 8/29/19
  4. Calvin, John, and John Owen. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010. Print. 311.
  5. Moffatt, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924. International Critical Commentary. 193. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.75849/page/n271, accessed 8/29/19.
  6. Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993. Print. New International Greek Testament Commentary. 638.
  7. Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. Print. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. 333.
  8. Lane, William L. Hebrews 9–13. Vol. 47B. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1991. Print. Word Biblical Commentary. 408.
  9. O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010. Print. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. 450–451.
  10. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hebrews/12-1.htm, accessed 8/29/19.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Bruce, 335–336.
  14. Attridge, Harold W., and Helmut Koester. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989. Print. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. 355.
  15. O’Brien, 452.
  16. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hebrews/12-1.htm, accessed 8/29/19.
  17. O’Brien, 452.
  18. Attridge, 355.
  19. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hebrews/12-2.htm, accessed 7/26/19.
  20. Attridge, 356.
  21. Ibid., 356-357.
  22. Lane, 412.
  23. Bruce, 338.
  24. Lindsay, 253-254.
  25. Bruce, 339.
  26. O’Brien, 456.
  27. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hebrews/12-3.htm, accessed 8/29/19.
  28. Lindsay, 255.