Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, December 11, 2023

Is there meaning in structure? (Heb 12:1–2)

There are times I feel myself being drawn back to more of a word–for–word translation. I think that the form in which meaning is conveyed can often be part of that meaning. I see this again in Hebrews 12:1–2 were a participle is usually translated with an imperatival sense, and doing so, I think, distracts from the actual meaning of the passage.

The basic flow of meaning is “laying aside every impediment” (ἀποθέμενοι), “let us run (τρέχωμεν) with endurance,” and “fixing our gaze (ἀφορῶντες) upon Jesus.” Every major translation translates the participle ἀποθέμενοι in an imperatival or hortatory sense, τρέχωμεν as a hortatory subjunctive, and ἀφορῶντες as a participle. And let me emphasize that this is a perfectly good translation, and I differ from all translations with caution.

But my question is, why not translate the participle ἀποθέμενοι as a participle since translations are translating the latter ἀφορῶντες as a participle? Why do they see the participle ἀποθέμενοι mirroring the subjunctive τρέχωμεν? How do we explain the shift from participle to subjunctive to participle? Is there meaning in that shift? Notice that even the more word–for–word translations translate the participle in a hortatory sense.

When I see shifts in parts of speech, I wonder what is being signaled. For me, it seems that the one imperatival idea is that we are to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (NIV). How do we do this? With the common “emptying – filling” pattern seen throughout the Bible such as “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Negatively, we are “throwing off everything that hinders," and positively we are "fixing our eyes on Jesus.” We empty ourselves by removing the sin that entangles us, and we fill ourselves by gazing on Jesus.

If a pastor simply preaches that we must run within endurance, and is unable to tell the people how to do that, the sermon does a great disservice. How much better to say that running with endurance is accomplished, first of all by removing sin from our life, and then secondly by focusing on Jesus. Isn't that how we endure?

On top of that, simply telling people to lay aside every impediment, without at the same time preaching the parallel and positive focusing on Jesus, is likewise almost impossible to implement.

Could you get to this point by translating the first participle as a hortatory? Sure, but why make the structure difficult to understand?