The Great Cloud of Witnesses
- Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Heb. 12:1)
Introduction. Generally when we think of witnesses, we think of a trial with those called to testify, either for the defense or prosecution to verify or refute a charge against a criminal. But clearly that is not its meaning as God used it above. Each day, as most of us live our lives, we are only spectators. If nothing unusual occurs, there is nothing to talk about and no need to testify. Only if something important happens are we called upon to give our witness about what occurred.
This is the basis of the “great cloud of witnesses” God has surrounded us with in Scripture. While each was living their life, something important occurred that God wanted us to hear about. Thus, every person whose life is recorded in the Bible, no matter how long or short the account, has been placed there because they have something important to testify about. An event occurred in their life, that God gave them the opportunity to become a witness to all future generations to help and bless with wisdom all who desire to serve and glorify God. We will be wise to heed them.
The first witness given in the chapter before Heb. 12 was Abel. (Heb. 11:4). There is only one event in his entire life God felt important enough to allow him to testify to all future generations. Yet up to this very day, “he being dead still speaks.” His testimony centered on the day he and Cain brought sacrifices to God. Abel’s sacrifice so far excelled Cain’s that God Himself also testified to its value by accepting his sacrifice and rejecting Cain’s: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.”
Thus, in this short account (Gen. 4:1-5), both God and Abel have given testimony that will endure until the end of time. A careful examination of their worship when compared to Jesus’ words about worship today reveals the value of Abel’s testimony and the importance of our heeding it. “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn. 4:23-24). Abel was a true worshiper and God sought his worship while Cain was not.
Thus this account, as all others recorded in Scripture allowed each though “being dead” to “still speak.” Since God chose each of them to give witness to some element of what He wants or expects of His people, taken together they have become our “great cloud of witnesses.” God wanted us to see how much they can help us. If we listen and seek to trust and follow each lesson their life and testimony was recorded to give us, it becomes easier to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us,” “and run with endurance the race set before us.” (Heb. 12:1).
In quick succession in Heb. 11, God brought Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham before our eyes, pointing out exactly what their testimony could accomplish. Taken together, they expound on how faith is “the substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things not seen.” They also expand our understanding that “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” Each was brought forth out of obscurity to testify about these things. Abel’s accepted sacrifice, Enoch’s accepted walk in fellowship with God, Noah’s successful completion of building the ark to God’s exact specifications, and Abraham’s obedience to God’s call all testify to the same thing. Full trust and confidence in God, a complete rejection of their own wisdom, and exact compliance with God’s commands led them to success. The remainder of the chapter continues to bring forward and explain exactly why God found their faith to be accepted. Each of those recorded had something important to witness.
Moses’ life testified of the value of sacrificial faith. God even directly tied his decision with ours by calling the afflictions he endured as a result of it “the reproach of Christ.” “By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.” (Heb. 11:24-26). This is exactly what God expects from all His servants when they “come of age.”
When the chapter concludes with “time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets,” it becomes evident that every account in the Bible that brought commendation and reward is another voice making up the “great cloud of witnesses.” Yet the most important element is saved for the last verse: “these all, having had witness (good testimony) borne to them through their faith.” This confirms that our “great cloud of witnesses” is everyone God recorded in the Bible in a favorable way. God validated their testimony by placing them in Scripture. Each record of their testimony gives us one more witness that in some way or another testifies that doing things exactly God’s way always brings success and reward.
Yet, we must be careful, because there is another type of witness. There are those whose lives testify that refusing to give God full faith and submission always brings failure. Thus, the account of Abel revealed the witness of Abel’s faith, but also recorded the testimony of Cain’s failure. Abel’s example was recorded for us to follow, but what about Cain? “Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1Jn. 3:12). Cain’s life was recorded as a testimony to avoid “evil works.” While Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice because he “walked by faith and not by sight,” Cain’s works were evil because his sacrifice and worship was not by faith. Since “faith comes by hearing the word of God,” God had told each of them exactly what He wanted them to do. Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent because he “trusted in the Lord with all his heart.” Cain’s sacrifice was an example of evil works because while being “wise in his own eyes,” he “leaned on his own understanding.” (2Cor. 5:7; Rom. 10:17; Pr. 5:5-7).
While Moses’ life testified to the value of sacrificial faith, those he led out of Egypt testified to the terrible consequences of unbelief. God revealed that “with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.” (1Cor 10:1-11). The application should be obvious, but God made it much clearer. First, God revealed exactly what we should understand about why God punished them: “I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” Then comes the application for us today: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.” (Heb. 3:10-12). He then revealed that the similarities between us and them must also be taken to heart: “the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” (Heb. 4:2-3). Every time we read Exodus through Deuteronomy, their lives testify to the danger we all face.
Sadly, there are far more witnesses to failure than success. Multitudes of those whose lives are recorded in Scripture testify to a life ending in God’s wrath and their destruction. From the ancient world to Sodom and Gomorrah (2Pet. 2:5-9), the wicked kings, the casting off of Israel, or Jeremiah’s inability to find one righteous man to save Jerusalem, Scriptures are full of the terrible consequences of rebellion. Their lives were recorded for a very specific purpose: “all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Another example of how the conduct of those recorded in the Scriptures is revealed by Jude. He brings forward three witnesses whose testimony will help us identify false teachers today: “For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.” (Jd. 11). In using the recorded lives of Cain, Balaam and Korah another cloud of witnesses begins to form. We could add Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-3), king Saul (1Sam. 15), and even Solomon at the end of his life (1Kings 1-11). Their lives ended in rebellion, rejection and failure, but their tribe has not yet left the earth and we must beware of those who follow their example.
Conclusion. The lives of God’s saints adorn the doctrines of Scripture, helping us to make the right applications and showing us the right way. The lives of the wicked graphically illustrate God’s wrath. Since “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun,” (Eccl. 1:9), their lives are just as timely and applicable today as they were when they were recorded.