The Bible is filled with pictures and metaphors from its extensive cultural context. Often, these metaphors are used in such a way as to encourage us to walk in obedience. Once such metaphor comes from the world of sports. In this case, the world of the arena and the games. This is the metaphor of running a race.

The Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology has an interesting article on the use of this metaphor in Hebrews 12:1.

“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.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Running the Race with Endurance

The author of Hebrews used the metaphor of an athletic competition in a stadium to illustrate spiritual truth. This was a common practice of moral philosophers in hellenistic cities during the first century as well as in Jewish synagogues of the Greek-speaking Diaspora. The reference to “a cloud of witnesses” seems to describe a city’s amphitheater with its ascending rows of seats filled with spectators gathered to watch athletic events. The author uses this general background, based on the “witnesses” in his “hall of heroes” in the previous chapter (11:2–40) offered as examples of constancy in faith, to encourage Christian perseverance as they run their spiritual race toward the heavenly goal and its reward.


The metaphor of running a race is taken from the Greek footrace contests in the pentathlon during the panhellenic games. Bream notes that “at the Olympic Games, the footrace was the only athletic contest for an extended period.” This fits well with the charge here to run with “endurance” (Greek hupomonēs) since in the marathon the prize is won not simply by how fast one runs, but how far.

Removing Hindrances

In the phrase ogkon apothemenoi panta (“throw off everything that hinders”) the emphasis is upon the term ogkon, “excess weight,” probably with reference to the length of a robe, the extra weight of which could interfere with running or to excess body weight. The use of panta (“all,” “every”) reveals that the analogy is not restricted, and could include whatever compromise in conduct might be made in deference to custom or culture and thereby reduce our spiritual progress. Sin is here described as “entangling” or “diverting,” another idea drawn from the athletic metaphor where there is the fear of losing ground and being impeded in the race due to shifting the runner’s focus from the goal. The writer therefore warns his audience to guard against sin in any form because it will distract them, causing them to look away when they should be fixing their gaze upon Jesus (12:2).

Removing Uncleanness

Archaeological discoveries have given us examples of the architecture and elements involved in athletic competition. Stadiums in the form of theaters and amphitheaters appear at sites throughout the Greco-Roman world and images of athletic competitors adorn artifacts from vases to tombs. One object common to both the stadium as well as the bathhouse was the strigil. This curved bronze tool was designed to fit neatly over arms and legs and was employed as a scraper. Archaeological examples of this instrument are plentiful, as they were an essential item in the Greco-Roman bathhouse.

Preparation for the race required contestants to remove all clothing before running so that nothing could impede them progress during the race. The “excess weight” may refer to clothing, but it may also be a reference to the need to resolve a problem faced by every runner on a track. Athletes would also apply olive oil to their unclad bodies to reduce friction when they ran. However, in the act of running they would become coated with a fine layer of dust they kicked up on the track. If they were to participate in other games, they would have to remove the accumulated dirt and debris before continuing.

This practice of “scraping off the excess” may be what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he spoke of “throw[ing] off” or “removing” (Greek apothemenoi) that which slows us down in the race of faith. Running through this world the Christian becomes soiled with the things of this world and so must regularly remove these contaminants in order to persevere and reach the goal, that is, conformity to Christ and completed service for him.

Bring the Bible to Life with Archaeology!

If you liked what you read here, then check out the Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology in our store! Continue to run the race of faith with endurance while being spurred on by archaeological insights like these!

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