A Great Cloud of Witnesses

We’ve often been encouraged to do right and persevere in our faith because “someone is watching.” We think of all of the people in Heaven looking down on us to approve or disapprove of our actions. But is that a biblical idea?

The passage most often quoted to support this idea is Hebrews 12:1, 2: “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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

The idea is that the “witnesses,” the faithful saints listed in the previous chapter, are watching us, and in a sense, cheering for us in the stands as we run the race, as in a stadium. It’s a real motivator, and an inspiring idea.

But I’m going to suggest a slightly different take on these witnesses, not who they are, but to what they are witnesses. Are they witnesses of our race? In the context of Hebrews 11, all of these people are giving testimony, through their lives, to the faithfulness of God.

Their lives are witnesses of His faithfulness, not ours. The word in the original is our word for “martyrs,” those who bear witness, especially in times of trial. That word is never used to denote “spectators,” so the idea would be that because these people found God faithful, we too can trust Him and confidently act on our faith.

How is this encouraging? Reading through the chapter we first encounter Abel and Enoch (vv. 4, 5), about whose lives we know very little. But then it gets more interesting when we see the names Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, and David, about whom much is written.

Each of them is commended for some act of faith, but curiously absent is any hint of sin in their lives. Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham and Sarah’s surrogate pregnancy, Isaac’s favoritism, Jacob’s deception, Moses’ murder, Rahab’s harlotry, Gideon’s repeated doubts, Barak’s cowardice, Samson’s womanizing, Jephthah’s evil vow, and David’s adultery–all of it is expunged from the record. All that is mentioned here is their faith, and they are commended for it.

Even though these were flawed men and women, they honored God in their acts of faith. Their lives, far from perfect, still are witnesses for us and to us (not necessarily of us), not only to God’s faithfulness, but His joy in honoring the faith of erring sinners. Like us.

What a great comfort to know that although our race will not be run perfectly, we will be rewarded for every time we believed God and acted accordingly (Matthew 10:42).This, to me, is where the real encouragement lies. It is Jesus’ example of perseverance to which we aspire, but we know that God is glorified by even a less-than-perfect witness to His grace.

““Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last;
but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
1 Corinthians 9:24–25

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