Who are the “cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12:1 and what are they doing?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. NLT[i]
Hebrews 12:1-2 is a call for us to run with endurance the race God has set before us. The Christian is to keep his or her eyes on Jesus. This is where we get our endurance. This thought is a continuation of the thought expressed at the end of chapter 10 where it says, “Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:36, NLT) “But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved.” (Hebrews 10:39, NLT)
Between chapter 10 and chapter 12, Hebrews 11 gives us example after example of those who lived and conquered by faith, those who had run the race with endurance. Hebrews 11:4 speaks of Abel whose offering gave evidence and who being dead still speaks to us by his example of faith. Hebrews 11:5 speaks of Enoch who was known as a person who pleased God.
Hebrews 11:2 says, “Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.” Then after recounting the stories of many who pleased God by their faith, Hebrews 11:39-40 says:
All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.
Chapter 12 begins with the word “Therefore” and it refers back to all of these examples. These people bear witness to the necessity of endurance and the benefit of finishing well. Therefore, an obvious and clear meaning of witnesses is that of ones who give testimony. However, this does not give an explanation of the analogy of the text comparing the life of faith to a race.
A race has observers. Hebrews 11:40 says that those who are our examples would not reach perfection without us. Compare this to the statement of Hebrews 12:23 that says:
You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect.
The author has drawn in the testimony of those who have lived the life of faith, and also referenced the fact that they are our observers. Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56, NLT) Apparently, those who have gone before are aware of what is happening on earth. Examples of this awareness are: 1) the story of the rich man and Lazarus, 2) the story of Job and the sons of God mentioned in Job 1 and 3) The souls of the martyred dead of Revelation 6:9 who appear to have an interest in what is happening on earth.
Those who have gone before are not only observers but they also rejoice in the work that God is doing in us and through us. The praise for God and the Lamb in Revelation is great as events leading to the completion of the Age unfold.
Paul wrote to the Philippians that they were his joy and crown (Philippians 4:1), and to the Galatians that he was suffering labor pains a second time for them (Galatians 4:19). If these churches were the fruit of his labor, we are as well. He has a vested interest in what is happening to us. I would dare to say that your grandmother has an interest in what happens to you.
The Bible does not tell us all that those who have gone before are doing, but they are interested in what God is doing on earth. They are interested in the fruits of the labor that they have done, and they are apparently aware of what is going on.
[i] Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.