A Great Cloud of Witnesses

The whole world is watching:

The Christian is never alone. He is part of the Body of Christ. And what he does is always noticed, certainly by the Triune God. But one interesting passage of Scripture suggests that we are being watched by others as well. Consider what we find in Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Now when you find a ‘therefore’ in Scripture, you need to learn what it is there for. And the chapter preceding this one is of course the great hall of fame chapter where so many past men and women of faith are listed and praised. After reminding us of all these amazing believers, the writer of this book urges us to run the Christian race with endurance.

The idea is that we should take strong motivation from knowing about all those who have gone before and finished the race well. And there is a two-tiered witnessing taking place here. We witness what they have done (as we read Scripture or church history or Christian biography, etc), but they may also be witnessing us.

Perhaps the saints who have preceded us into eternity are sitting around and cheering us on. “Go Bill – you can do it! Keep going!” Knowing there are so many great champions of the faith who might be supporting us in this way should give us a renewed passion to keep on keeping on.

It is the same for everyone in this life. If you have practiced and worked hard at something – perhaps as a pianist or a golfer – there is real encouragement in knowing that there is a crowd of onlookers, wishing you well and cheering you on. And if you know that a great pianist or golfer is in the crowd while you do your thing, you will try even harder to impress that champion.

One expository commentator and pastor wrote in his remarks about these verses how in his first year of preaching, he was told that two famous and well-known English evangelical preachers were sitting in the church. That made him nervous, but it also made him want to do the very best he could. R. Kent Hughes said this about that Sunday morning:

Now, I always prepare as thoroughly as possible and have always tried to do my best regardless of the situation, but I do remember consciously crossing and dotting my homiletical “t’s” and “i’s” that morning – though it is to be feared that my sermon was eminently forgettable! But my point is, the presence of notable witnesses is motivating, whatever one’s activity may happen to be.

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Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul (2 volumes in 1 / ESV Edition) (Preaching the Word) by Hughes, R. Kent (Author) Amazon logo

I think we all can feel that way. We probably try harder, and are more eager to impress, when others that we respect and look up to are watching whatever it is that we happen to be doing. Even if you are just selling shoes, if the boss comes around you might lift your game just a bit to make sure he is happy with your work.

But there is another way of looking at all this. I often use one popular movie when I am speaking about such matters to my students. I refer to The Truman Show of 1998 starring Jim Carrey. It is the ultimate reality TV story about a man who was born and raised his entire life in an artificial environment (a massive TV set) for the entertainment of others.

He is not aware that the whole world is watching his every move, but a huge global audience follows his daily routines, watching it all unfold on their television screens. I will not give away the ending if you have not seen it yet, but my point is we all as believers can tend to be like this.

We are just living our lives, blissfully unaware that anyone else might be watching. But according to the text we are considering here, it seems that we are being watched – by a great cloud of witnesses. At the very least, we are of course being watched by our Lord. Nothing we do is ever not noticed by God. That should give us pause for concern.

But so often we – and I include myself here – live as if no one is there, no one is watching, no one is aware of what we are up to. And given that we are told to run the race carefully, and put aside those things that weigh us down and trip us up, we must give greater heed to these imperatives.

Just moments ago, on the social media I saw a meme that someone had posted. It was a short quote from the English evangelical Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle (1816-1900): “Men fall in private long before they fall in public”. Jesus of course had spoken of similar things. As he said in Luke 12:3, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.”

So all that we say and do and think is being noticed. That should help us to keep on the straight and narrow, and help us run the race with diligence and perseverance. It is too easy to be swayed by what we see and hear in this world, but we must be more conscious of what can be seen and heard in the next. As Richard Phillips has said about this passage:

This, then, is how you should conceive of your life. You belong to this noble company of God’s people, living in this world but glorifying God through faith. This is the context of your life. You are surrounded by those with whom you will spend eternity, those who will be your brothers and sisters long after everyone else is consigned to judgment. You should hear their voices and conform to the pattern of their faith, not to the pattern of this world.

One other bit of commentary is worth running with here, but from another direction. Hannah Harrington, in her new commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah, says this:

God’s people are holy – that is, they carry his name and are agents of his will. It is through them that the divine will is accomplished in the world. They can take courage from the fact they are in his hand no matter the circumstances. His favor will support every task he inspires. Christians are not on their own in this endeavor. They are linked to one another in the present community of faith, but also to the “great cloud of witnesses” of the past (Heb. 12:1) – the generations of the faithful extending all the way back into biblical times. With such a heritage, today’s Christians can find the strength to stand as faithful role models and teachers of the next generation, and the next after that.

Yes, correct. So let us run the race faithfully and resolutely. Other people are watching us. The life we now live can be an example and an encouragement to others, just as others have inspired and motivated us to keep on going.

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