The Bible says “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Are the biblical saints of old watching us live our lives like characters in a bad reality TV show?
Hebrews 11 presents the Bible’s hall of fame of faith: The book of faith and hope. The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to the biblical saints as “a great cloud of witnesses.” What does that term imply? Study Hebrews 12:1-4.
To hear more teachings from Hebrews 11, listen to “The Book of Faith and Hope.”
-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty-one: A Great Cloud of Witnesses
Originally presented on February 1, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin…
–Hebrews 12:1-4 (NASB)
In last week’s sermon review, Lancaster blew through Hebrews 11 faster than I imagined, especially given how detail-oriented he’s been in addressing the other chapters so far. Of course, he’s devoted an entirely different sermon series to that one chapter, but I’ll have to listen to those fourteen sermons another time.
This week the focus is on how Chapter 11 affects the current material, namely Hebrews 12:1-4, but let’s stay with Chapter 11 for a little bit longer, particularly verse 2:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.
The New American Standard Bible translates the Greek word martus as “approval” and other English translations include “commended,” “their commendation,” “good report,” and “testimony.” The best word we could use in English though is “witness.”
Lancaster goes through the original meaning of this word which is where we get the English word “martyr.” Today, we all think of a martyr as someone who dies for his or her religion, but back when the Epistle to the Hebrews was being written, it meant a witness in a legal proceeding. You might think of the early believers being taken before a Roman tribunal and directed to renounce their faith, blaspheme the name of Jesus, and to worship a pagan idol. The actual testimony of the believing witness, if they were true to their faith, was to affirm their trust in Messiah and belief in the coming resurrection and Kingdom of God. The consequence for that affirmation was to be executed, hence the eventual change in meaning of the word “martyr” (so, no, some suicide bomber blowing himself up to kill a bunch of innocent people is not a “martyr”).
The readers of the Hebrews letter were in a similar position, but not relative to the Romans. The Sadducees, who were in control of the Temple, were after these Jewish disciples of the Master to renounce their faith in the resurrection and the life in the world to come, since Sadducees believed in none of that (see Acts 23:6-8).
This has applications for us today as disciples. First of all, the “witness” of our faith in terms of Evangelical Christianity is not really a witness at all. A bunch of teens from a church youth group ambushing people at a shopping mall with religious tracts is not a witness. Being a witness is being directly challenged to renounce your faith and yet holding fast to it anyway.
There are many Christians in atheist nations like China or in various Muslim countries who are witnesses, who can only save themselves from being put in prison or killed if they renounce their faith and, like the ancient believers before Roman tribunals, they hold fast and faithfully suffer and even die rather than betray Yeshua.
Compared to that, no one in the western nations, including the U.S., has their witness challenged significantly.
Or is that true?
Lancaster says our challenges are much more subtle:
- Social pressure
- Moral relativism
The world around us attempts to get us to renounce our faith by encouraging us to conform to progressive and politically correct standards. In fact, this manipulation is so subtle that you don’t even have to stop calling yourself a “Christian,” you can continue to go to church (at least certain denominations), and yet still conform to every single standard valued by progressive secular society.
I couldn’t help but think of Jay Michaelson’s book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality and the methods he employed to convince his readers that his understanding of the Bible, one that affirms and supports “loving same-sex couples” and “marriage equality” in the church and synagogue, is the correct and desired one.
If you remove the strong emotional components from the Michaelson book and look at it in terms of strategies and tactics, then it’s possible to view a parallel between the content of the book and what Lancaster says about how the Adversary seeks to remove, dilute, or delete our witness as Christians, to convince us to denounce Jesus so we can be just like everyone else.
Lancaster said in his sermon that one witness to our faith is lifelong, male-female, monogamous marriage, and he says the world laughs at this witness. Besides the issues involved in Michaelson’s book, how many couples, even Christian couples, have sexual relationships before marriage or outside of marriage, and have children outside of marriage? This is something of the norm in secular society and it seems the only people who actually want to get married are gays and lesbians, and that only because it’s still illegal in a dwindling number of states in our nation.
The world does work against us in many ways, challenging us, and demanding a witness to our faith. We need to look back to Hebrews 11, which is all about the many, many role models we have to look up to who were also challenged and yet never wavered:
…and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.
If we think we have problems living Holy lives, look at the people, in this case, the prophets of old, who suffered, were tortured, murdered, lived desperate and difficult lives, and all of them who had gained a good witness of their faith, even though they did not receive anything they were promised by God, so that we too could be included in the promises of the future resurrection.
What Did I Learn?
The sufferings of the faithful we read about in Chapter 11 were their witness, their faith testified about them and still does every time we read the Bible. The “great cloud of witnesses” doesn’t mean the saints are sitting around in Heaven spying on our lives as if we’re part of a bad reality TV show. They aren’t witnessing us, their lives are a witness to us.
We are like runners in a race. Those faithful witnesses have already run that race and won. We are still facing the challenges they overcame. They are our heroes and our guides. Their lives are our inspiration.
The central message of the sermon is “Don’t give up. You aren’t alone. Others have crossed the finish line — you can too.”
When my kids were young, we used to watch a variety of different cartoons including one about a group of martial artists who trained in weighted clothing in order to increase their strength.
Verse one of Hebrews chapter 12 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance (weight) and the sin which so easily entangles us…” If you’re going to run a race and your life, your eternal life, depends on successfully crossing the finish line, you need to be as light and strong as you can. “Weighted clothing” or the weight of sin will just slow you (and me) down. We need to endure because it’s a long race, not a sprint. And there are many “stumbling blocks” along the way, which is why we need to keep our eye on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith.”
No one’s perfect. No one’s faith is perfect, but then again, it doesn’t have to be. We are broken, just like the world around us, but the perfecter of the world is also the perfecter of our faith. If we keep our eyes on him, we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to keep paying attention and not to waver.
That bullet point list I posted above is a list of items designed to distract us and to change our focus. If we start paying attention to all that and let our attention wander, it’s easy to become very discouraged and even to give up. Even if we don’t think we’ve given up, it’s easy to slip into some model of “Christianity” that says we’re doing the right thing by ignoring the standards of God, difficult as they seem to be, and embracing the standards of people and of the culture in which we live. We may still believe we’re part of the “community of faith” and that we are doing good and showing compassion, but in fact, we have exited Yeshua-faith and joined the ranks of a faithless society more concerned about present appearances than future and eternal glory.
A life of faith seems to be very weighty sometimes. I’ve felt it pressing down on me, and often the tonnage seems triggered by religious rather than secular people. But they can really do nothing if faith is strong. If you feel discouragement and are tempted to give up or even just lighten up, don’t blame the world, look to your own heart, your own faith, and your own stamina. Call on God to strengthen you and to see you through to the end of the race.