Hebrews 12:1 has been interpreted in two ways. It says that we have a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us as encouragements to finish our race of the Christian life. Some argue that the encouragement is the example they set for us as recorded in the Old Testament. Others argue that they are invisible spectators of our race cheering us on to victory. The Greek word, as well as the English translation, for “witness” could refer to either one. The writers of the United Bible Societies, Handbook for Bible Translators seem to take the later position. They write, “The thought is that the Old Testament heroes are watching how the writer of Hebrews and his readers “run their race” in the Christian life.” The writers (Ellingworth & Nida) look back at Hebrews 11:40 for support. It tells us that we too are intimately linked with the lives of the Old Testament saints in so far as that, as this passage says, “…apart from us they should not be made perfect.” They conclude their discussion, “We have this large crowd of witnesses around us may be expressed as ‘this large crowd of those who have witnessed to their faith are around us’ or ‘… are, as it were, close by around us.’”

This interpretation best fits the image of the Olympic races that all were familiar with in the New Testament days. In the Dictionary of biblical imagery, which takes this position, says, “Having described the great examples of faith in Hebrews 11, the author now depicts them as an amphitheater crowd of witnesses observing a later generation of faithful ones.” The witnesses, however, are not mere spectators. They are those who ran the race before us and won! They are not armchair quarterbacks telling you how to do something they could not do or have not done. They ran the race with even though the odds were stacked against them and they had great obstacles to hurtle on their way. According to this interpretation, they are cheering us on.

Jim Wilson also takes this view of Hebrews 12:1. He ends his discussion with serious words of encouragement for us runners. He writes, “When you think you are giving up too much to follow God and that it isn’t worth the sacrifice. Other men and women of faith will rise from the great cloud of witnesses and tell you that they died for their faith, and it was worth it. They’ll tell you how God shut the mouths of the lions in some cases, others will tell you that they lost everything to follow Him and gave everything, even their own lives, but that it was worth it. Listen my friends, listen, and open your spiritual ears. You think you are alone, you’re not. There is a great crowd of witnesses surrounding us, and they are telling you that you can make it. Keep your eyes on the finish line, and listen for encouragement as you run the race.”