Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Running the Race

    Running the race. What thought is brought to mind? A paved track with parallel lines? A number of competitors lined up: the goal, to see who is the fastest; who will break the tape at the finish line? Of what purpose would such a race be as applied to the Christian life? Perhaps ancient history can afford us some insight. . .
Setting the Stage
    The first two decades of the fifth century B.C. marked one of the great turning points in world history. These were the years of the Persian and Greek wars. The powerful Persian Empire in 546 B.C. extended from Asia to Egypt to what is now Turkey. This great empire built the first Suez Canal which linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. 
    Greece on the other hand, consisted of a scattering of independent city-states, called poleis. These early city-states spawned the democratic ideas that have persisted into modern times. Athens eventually became the largest and most prosperous polis. Another Greek polis, Sparta, was not so democratic. They kept their kings and maintained a conservative, regimented society built around military training and the art of war.
The Persian/Greek War
    The Persian Empire over the years expanded to the Mediterranean Sea. In the process some Greek settlements were conquered. Ionia was one such settlement. After many years, they tried to revolt against the Persians but the uprising was immediately squashed by the powerful Persian Army. By the year 490 B.C., the Persian Army was ready to expand their territory and move into Europe. They landed a large force just outside of Athens on the plains of Marathon and prepared for attack.
The Role of Phidippides
    The Athens, vastly outnumbered, desperately needed the help of Sparta's military base to help fend off the attack. Time was short, so the Athenian generals send Phidippides (or Philippides) a professional runner to Sparta to ask for help. The 140 mile course was very mountainous and rugged. Phidippides ran the course in about 36 hours. Sparta agreed to help but said they would not take the field until the moon was full due to religious laws. This would leave the Athenians alone to fight the Persian Army. Phidippides ran back to Athens (another 140 miles!) with the disappointing news. Immediately, the small Athenian Army (including Phidippedes) marched to the plains of Marathon to prepare for battle. 
The Battle of Marathon 
    The Athenian Army was outnumbered 4 to 1 but they launched a surprise offensive thrust which at the time appeared suicidal. But by day's end, 6400 Persian bodies lay dead on the field while only 192 Athenians had been killed. The surviving Persians fled to sea and headed south to Athens where they hoped to attack the city before the Greek Army could re-assemble there.
    Phidippides was again called upon to run to Athens (26 miles away) to carry the news of the victory and the warning about the approaching Persian ships. Despite his fatigue after his recent run to Sparta and back and having fought all morning in heavy armor, Phidippides rose to the challenge. Pushing himself past normal limits of human endurance, he reached Athens in perhaps 3 hours, delivered his message and then died shortly thereafter from exhaustion. 
    Sparta and the other Greek polies eventually came to the aid of Athens and eventually they were able to turn back the Persian attempt to conquer Greece. 
Concluding Remarks and Beginning of Olympic Marathon Races
    The Greek victory marked one of the decisive events of world history because it kept an Eastern power (the Persians) from conquering what is now Europe. The victory gave the Greeks incredible confidence in themselves, their government and their culture.
         Centuries later, the modern Olympic Games introduced a "marathon" race of (40,000 meters or 24.85 miles).  The winner was Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from village of Marusi and veteran of several long military marches , His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance (average pace of  7:11 minutes per mile).
      At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26 miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castleto White City stadium, with 385 yards added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII's royal box. After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 26.2 mile distance was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the official marathon distance.
   As well known in history as was the phenomenal running of Phidippides it was not unnatural that the writer of Hebrews should reference “running the race” as a comparison unto the followers of Christ.
Let us . . .run with patience the race.
    “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and [the] sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” Heb. 12:1.  (Omit the).  Better, lay aside Sin (apotithemi, to put away, cast off.)
    The “laying aside” of every weight and Sin: does it infer that we should lay aside, that is set to one side, not at a great distance; perhaps at ‘arm’s length,” perchance it will be readily accessible should we desire to take it up again. No! It is to cast off. The athlete who trains to throw the shot put, a heavy metal ball: with his strong arm he casts it as far down field as he can. What folly that man should think to cast off Sin with the arm of the flesh. “I can do it myself, I need no other help!” Consider the strong arm of the Lord: He cast our Sins, as weighty as they were, as far as the east is from the west!
    The casting away of every weight and sin which doth so easily beset us. As the hymn writer mourned, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” Beset, euperistatos, well standing around, i.e. (a competitor) thwarting (a racer) in every direction (fig. of sin in general.) There has never been a day when the world (and Satan) have had so many resources to literally bombard its occupants (and the Believer). And the attack is omni-directional: Satan continually goes about seeking whom he may devour.
    “And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” Luke 22:41-44. “and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born” Rev. 12:4b. Are we not to understand that our Lord Jesus Christ was to run the race that was set before Him, even unto its Finish, constantly be attacked from all sides by Satan himself along with his sons the Pharisees, priests: His own received Him not. And some will inquire, Why did Jesus pray so much?
    And what do these two verses have to do with one another, you may ask? The answer: EVERYTHING! Carefully read the following definitions. The unfolding of their message is foundational to the comprehension of these verses.
ago, a prim verb; prop. to lead; by impl. to bring, drive, (reflex.) go (spec.) pass (time), or (fig.) induce: be, bring (forth), carry, (let), keep, lead away, be open. 
agoge, redupl; a bringing up, i.e. mode of living: - manner of life.
agon, prop. a place of assembly (as if (led), i.e., ( by impl.) a contest held there); fig., an effort or anxiety:  conflict, contention, fight, race.
agonia, a struggle (prop. ( the state), i.e. (fig.) anguish, agony.
agonizomai, to struggle, lit. ( to compete for a prize), fig. ( to contend with an adversary), or gen. (to endeavor to accomplish something): fight, labor fervently, strive.
    How may we define ‘running the race?’  A bringing up, mode of living, manner of life;  agony, a struggle, anguish, to contend with an adversary, labour fervently.  There is an assembly, a contest (held there), a conflict, contention, fight, race.
    Jesus went before us and endured the agony as He contended with the adversary; as He ran the race in our stead. Shall we not take up our cross and follow Him? The adversary with which we contend is a defeated foe! Jesus gained the victory forever at the cross; He finished His race, crossing the FINISH line! (May it be known that Satan, though a competitor of sorts, was not in the race!  The race was one that was ruled by certain laws. If he, Satan, could get Jesus to break just ONE - He would be disqualified! Even at the cross, Satan must have been convinced that Jesus would fail - and he, the devil would be the victor by default. And it would be God, who according to His own Law, would disqualify the Lord Jesus! Ha! Not so, Lucifer! 
    In Luke 22 we read “Father, if thou be willing, remove the cup. . .and there appeared an angel from heaven strengthening him. Shall we not rightly apply Isaiah 40:28-30 here? Jesus was not pulling back, but pressing forward. Men may have led Jesus to the cross, but it was His passion that drove Him there; sweat as great drops of blood, agony; a fire within His soul that could not be quenched. Jesus has, for the 33 years of His life on earth, run the course that the Father set before Him; victory was nigh at hand; Satan would be defeated!
   “Jesus “endured the cross. . .endured such contradiction of sinners against himself.”  “consider Him - lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” Hebrews 12:2b, 3.  He willingly ran the race according to the will of the Father. On the cross He declared - FINISHED! The race which He ran with patience was one of endurance, and He won it, defeating His Foe! On Resurrection Day His Father raised Him up: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. . .And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Phil. 2:9,10a,11.  He who endured the crown of thorns is “crowned with glory and honour” Heb. 2:9.
    A soldier may carry upon his person a heavy backpack, with his rifle and much other equipment; but the one who is running a race will travel light: he will lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset him - he will run with  patience the race that is set before him. His goal, the finish line: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher [finish line?] of our faith. He will “run with patience:”  “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”
A Soldier of the Cross.
    Despite his fatigue after his run to Sparta and back and having fought all morning in heavy armour, Phidippides rose to the challenge. Pushing himself past normal limits of endurance, he reached Athens in perhaps 3 hours, delivering his message and then died shortly thereafter from exhaustion. 
   Amidst the running of his course, Phidippides put on heavy armour and fought against the enemy; then resumed the run from Marathon to Athens.  
    Are we not admonished to “run the race,” yet to “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might? To put on the whole armour of God, that ye [we] may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil? (Eph. 6:10,11.)
    “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable unto his death: If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. . .forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before. I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” Phil. 3;10, 13b, 14.
       “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. . .” Brother Paul, tell us of the fight that you have fought; and of the race that you have run; of the course that you have finished.   
    “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils  in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” II Cor. 11:24-27. 
    “And he [the Lord] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong” II Cor. 12;9,10.
   They might imprison Paul, even put him in stocks (Acts 15:22) but they could not imprison his spirit, nor the Gospel of Jesus Christ! He continued running the race! 
A Great Cloud of Witnesses.
    Consider the running of the race by those heroes of faith found in Hebrews chapter 11: “Who through faith. . .had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented: (Of whom the world was not worthy:)  Choose a Moses, a Joseph, a David: follow his life’s story; see him running the race that is set before him: his fights, his struggles, his persecution - and his God who constantly watched over him in the midst of it all! 
Running with a Vision.
    Look unto your Neighbor. You are not alone in the running of the race. 
    In the running of a marathon (26.2 miles) one will sweat profusely, will likely lose weight: in so doing he/she will consume not just a cup, but liters of water and other fluids. They cannot be weighted down, carrying a gallon jug of water: there are others standing on the side with cups of water of which they may partake when necessary. We as believers are runners in the race, but likewise we are among those who are on the side lines with cups of water to give our brethren in their thirst as they also are running the race that is set before them. And let us not forget Phidippides, who amidst ‘running the race’ donned heavy armour and himself fought the oppressors. At onset, here are at least three things we are to be busy doing of which there should be no debate!
   “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only. . .For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. . .Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” Matt. 10:42a, 25;35,39b.  Should our response not be as our Brother Paul? “And I will gladly spend and be spent for you” II Cor. 12:15.
Running the Race - Getting a Second Wind.
     Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” Isaiah 40:28-31.
    Second wind: “the energy for a renewed effort to continue an undertaking” (Webster.)  It is widely known that one can get a renewed energy as he sees the goal or finish line. The encouragement is as a breath of fresh air in his nostrils. 
    The running of our race is not one of competition nor speed: it is more of an endurance race. It is contending with an adversary. It is putting on the armour. It is running the race, being strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. “Yea. though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” As with Phidippides the terrain we run is very mountainous and rugged. It is not a race to be run by sight but by FAITH. It is looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith! Shall we not rightly say that Jesus completes our faith? Revelation 3:19 says that “times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.”  
    Something puzzles me. Phidippides ran 140 miles each way to and from Athens to Sparta; then another 26 miles from Marathon to Athens: what did he do for food and water?  But be assured, in our running the race as Believers, we have with us the Everlasting Fountain of Living Water and the Bread of Life!