The Cloud of Witnesses
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus — Heb_12:1-2
The Eyes of the Witnesses upon us
While the word witness in the New Testament generally has the sense of testifier, there can be little question that in this striking figure it bears the common meaning of spectator. The writer is thinking of a Roman racecourse on some day of national festivity. There is the runner straining every nerve. There is the emperor within his purple curtains. And around the course, tier above tier, till the uppermost figures are as a haze of cloud, is the vast multitude who are looking on. Every eye is fixed upon the runners. When the race is in progress every breath is held. There is an intentness we can scarce conceive today, for then the issues might be life or death. Thus though witness in other parts of Scripture generally signifies a testifier, there can be little doubt that here it means spectator. We must beware of forcing Scripture words into one unalterable meaning. Words are plastic things; they are responsive; they alter with the urgencies of thought. Our Lord would take some great and simple word, like bread or life or water, and in the compass or a sentence would pass from one meaning to another.
So I take it that the writer means there are innumerable spectators of our human life. As we toil and struggle a thousand eyes are on us as eager as any at a Roman racecourse. These witnesses are not angelic beings. The writer here is not thinking of the angels. They are not the denizens of earth still with us in the fellowship of home. The key to the interpretation of these witnesses is found in the preceding chapter where we hear the roll call of the faithful. They are great saints, like Abraham and Noah, the spirits of just men made perfect, the child you lost in the first bloom of innocence, the dear boy who laid down his life in the war, the father who feared God, the mother or sister who was a saint, all watching us with the absorbed attention of the spectators on a Roman racecourse. He calls them a cloud because of their vast number. We still speak of a cloud of flying things. He calls them so because a cloud is far above resting on the bosom of the sky. And he says, “Children, when tempted to give up in the great race and to be overcome by some besetting sin, take a quiet moment and remember that you are encompassed by a great cloud of witnesses.”
To Know Our Loved Ones Watch Us Is an Encouragement
Now this thought when we let it play its part is rich in very real encouragement. Think how it 0reanimates our hopes. Professor Henry Drummond used to tell us of a student sitting for his examination. Every once in a while out of his pocket he took something and gazed at it a moment. The examiner, naturally suspicious, stole up to see what he was looking at and found it was the portrait of the girl he hoped to marry. It inspired him just to see her face. It heartened him to feel that she was watching. He worked better when he thought that he was working under the loving gaze of those dear eyes. And to know that eyes like that are watching us from the other side, within the veil, is one of the secret encouragement’s of life. If you have to undergo an operation, no one so inspires you as the man who has been through it. If you have to make your dwelling in a deadly climate, it is the man who has lived there who makes you hopeful. “Why,” he says, “I lived there for years, and look at me”—the picture of good health—and so he reanimates your hopes. Now I remember that our writer’s witnesses are not angelic nor celestial beings. They have lived our life and fought our battles and known our suffering and temptation. And if now they rejoice in the light and love of God, liberated from sin and pain forever, what a new hope stirs within the heart! There steals on the ear the distant triumphant song. We are watched by those who have arrived—the saints of old, the children we have lost, the dear ones who have gone before. We are like swimmers battling in an angry sea when suddenly we hear voices on the shore, and, hearing them, we pluck up heart again.
Our Loved Ones May Pray for Us
Nor can we reasonably doubt that we are helped by the prayers of that great cloud of witnesses. Let us return to the figure for a moment. If in the tiers of the old amphitheater there was seated the wife or mother of the runner, would she not pray to all the gods she knew that her beloved might carry off the crown? And if our loved ones lean from the galleries of heaven while we are running the race of life and death, is it not conceivable they are praying also? If the child every night at bedtime here prayed for its father and its mother, if the wife every quiet morning here prayed for her husband and her children, I cannot conceive that in a better world where being is not altered but expanded, these beautiful activities should cease. The souls under the altar cry for vengeance. Is the cry for vengeance the only prayer in heaven? Are there not golden bowls there full of odors which are the prayers of the saints? I think we shall never know how much we owe when we are weary, suffering, tempted, overwhelmed, to the prayers offered within the veil by those we have loved long since and lost awhile. We are encompassed by a cloud of witnesses. They watch us, they love us, and they pray for us. Wherefore let us run with patience the race that is set before us. And when we remember that we owe all this to Him who brought life and immortality to light, let us run looking unto Jesus, who is the author and finisher of faith.