This passage appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C (most recently August 2016)
Summary: The writer of Hebrews focuses on the reality of
trials and tribulations of a faithful life here on earth. The Christian life is not one of avoiding suffering, but embracing it as Christ embraced his own suffering. We follow Christ who suffered before entering glory. Along the way we have our faithful brothers and sisters to inspire us.
πιστει (pistei, dative of πιστος , meaning "faith", throughout chapter 11). I discuss this word and its use in my last week's post for Hebrews 11.
μαρτυρων (genitive form of μαρτυς, martys, meaning "testimony"; 12:1) As I've written about 100 times before the word μαρτυς simply meant witness in a legal sense. However, so many Christians died giving their witness, that the meaning of the word changed. Here in Hebrews 12 we already see the shift in the meaning of this word, in that suffering is clearly connected with witnessing. While we may not have modern martyrs in the same sense of direct persecution for faith, most of us have received a powerful witness from someone whose faith endured suffering and obstacles.
αγωνα (agona, meaning "race" or "struggle"; 12:1) The word is essentially agony! We are invited into agony for Christ. This word appears in another verse in relationship to witness:
1 Timothy 6:12 Fight the good fight (αγωνα) of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
Translating it as race makes sense given the verb "run" used in 12:1. However, this may seem like a competition against others. The focus here is on the struggle against sin.
This word can also mean "heat" like run a "heat." Or life on earth is like a heat!
αρχηγον (archegon, meaning "pioneer"; 12:2) The word comes from two basic Greek words: αρχη meaning first or primary; ηγον a derivative of αγω meaning lead. Jesus is the first leader! Moving beyond word games, this word appears twice in the letter to the Hebrews. In 12:2 but also 2:10
Hebrews 2:10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer (αρχηγον) of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Hebrews 12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer (αρχηγον) and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Both verses speak of Christ attaining perfection and pioneering our faith. But both also clearly go via the way of the cross. Christ leads the way, but it is always through Calvary.
Some fancy word play:
The writer of Hebrews plays on some words here in a way impossible to detect in English.
περικειμενον vs ευπεριστατον: In 12:1 the writer says that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; sin is clinging to us. Both words have a similar root: περι (peri, around). The cloud of witnesses is abiding around us; sin is also standing around us. The word describing sin is quite interesting: ευπεριστατον which breaks down into ευ-περι-στατον: Pleased-around-standing. Sin is happy to stand around us!
Sermon connection: How we can be reminded of the cloud of witnesses, that they may be ever before us as much as sin is?
περικειμονον vs προκειμενον. Both words have at their root: κειμον from κειμαι meaning "lie around." περι (peri) means around vs προ (pro) means before. The cloud of witnesses surrounds us for what lay head of us. And what does lay ahead of us? Agony here but glory later.
Sermon connection: What challenges do you have before you?