The Christian life is likened here to a race – a tough, gruelling race in which it is easy to “grow weary and lose heart”. Finishing is what counts and there is a real danger we might not finish (that’s the concern behind the whole letter). Thankfully it is not a race we run alone – Christ has gone ahead of us, and countless others have run the race already; we have a coach or trainer, our heavenly Father, and we have each other and we are meant to helping each other make it to the finishing line.
The cloud of witnesses is the heroes of faith recalled in ch.11, who have run the race. It’s not so much that they’re looking at us, rather we are to look at them and how they ran, particularly seeing how they persevered to the end despite not receiving in this life what they hoped for. Inspired by them, we too should “run with perseverance the race marked out for us“ therefore, and not let anything hinder us or trip us up.
But above all we are to look to Jesus. He is the author of faith, in the sense of the pioneer or trailblazer who has run the race before us perfectly – the perfect example of faith. The NIV adds the word “our” – “author and perfecter of our faith” – and that is wonderfully true too: he didn’t just run the race before us, he ran it for us, so he is not merely an example (and one we could never hope to emulate), but he got us into the race, as it were, through his saving work, and he will get us to the end. So we are to fix our eyes on him – considering both what he has done, going to the cross for us and now seated in heaven for us, and how he did it – ie with Heb.11:1 type faith. It was because he was sure of what lay ahead that he was able to endure even the cross: wonderfully we will never have to endure what he endured, and yet that same hope is ours and should encourage us therefore.
Verse 4 is a gentle reminder that the route we must run is far far easier than the one our Saviour had to run; easier too than many others who have run before us (11:36,37). Yet how quick we are to moan or feel sorry for ourselves when the going seems tough. The writer therefore reminds us that we should view whatever hardships we might face as the Lord’s discipline. “Discipline” means more than simply “correction” or “punishment”, it means “training”. God is like our trainer, who is committed to helping us run the race and finish the race. We should note the significance of his discipline: it shows we are sons. We might feel unloved by God, but actually it is a sign of his love and care for us. And notice too the purpose of his discipline: to help us become more like our Father, sharing in his holiness (v.10) and producing a “harvest of righteousness and peace” (v.11). In his loving sovereignty, God can use even bad and painful things to a good end.
The proper response to discipline is neither to make light of it nor to lose heart under it (v.5), but rather to submit to it (v.9) and learn from it (v.11). We are not to be like the defiant child who resents discipline and refuses to be trained by it, nor like the overly sensitive child, who dissolves into tears when the teacher ticks them off. In the midst hardship, we should ask what is Father trying to teach me through this?
Verse 12 is nicely realistic – we are not Olympic athletes with rippling muscles, we are weak and feeble, but we need to keep running. And as we run we need to be mindful of those running the race alongside, particularly “the lame” who are struggling and might give up. We must run in such a way as helps them. That concern for one another has been mentioned before (eg 10:24,25) and will be picked up again in the verses that follow (v.15). “Level paths”, in the context of Proverbs 4, seems to refer to living morally, resisting sin and seeking to be holy as our Father is training us to be (cf.12:1 and 12:14).