Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” There have been two specific ways of viewing the phrase “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The first way is that they are watching us from heaven. Brooks explains this view: “They watch us, they observe how we are doing, they cheer us on, like spectators in an athletics stadium, all around us (‘we are surrounded’). They have finished their course, and they are taking a keen interest in how we are faring in ours. This is stated for our encouragement and to spur us on to finish our Christian course faithfully ourselves.”[1] To the contrary Hodges says, “life of faith has been amply attested by this great cloud of Old Testament witnesses. (This does not mean that they watch believers today.)”[2] O’Brien agrees with the second opinion and writes, “However, while the athletic imagery of the passage is unmistakable in the second and third clauses of the verse, the emphasis of the first clause falls on what Christians see in the host of witnesses rather than on what they see in Christians.”[3]

I’ve held both views! But today I’m siding with the thought that they are not watching us, but we are watching them. The author’s point seems to be that these men and women of chapter 11 were challenged in their faith but persisted. I’ve always felt that thinking about all the saints of old – Abraham, Moses and all the others – was a frightening prospect. This seems to say they are laying a yard stick against us to see if we measure up and I’ve always wanted to insist that in Christ we have already measured up and there is no more evaluation of our sin. I like the way Hacking puts it regarding this issue. He writes, “…we are watching them for encouragement rather than them watching us in examination.” [4] As an incoming first year student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I was asked to share my testimony at the faculty and staff reception of the 500 new students of which I was one. Having Charles Ryrie, Norm Geisler, Howard Hendricks, Dwight Pentecost and 30 other famous faculty members along with 500 of my peers in attendance watching me, didn’t fill me with confidence and assurance. It did not inspire me! It filled me with fear and dread. But now, 40 years later, remembering those faithful men and thinking about their lives inspires me to go on in my faith.

What do we see in this “great cloud” of witnesses? We see the persistent conviction that our sins and struggles are settled once and for all in Christ. Even the Old Testament characters looked forward to Christ and his resolution of their sin for salvation. This is the race we’re in. The enemy wants us to return to a focus on our own efforts and works to find acceptance with God but these believers of old had to resist and move on in faith. They trusted in God’s promise of full redemption through faith in Christ and we are challenged to the same. Don’t let the pressures of the world drive you back to any religion or religious ritual. The heroes of chapter 11 laid aside those fleshly passions fueling their self-righteousness and held strong to the hope of the future redemption promised by God that would be provided by Him, by His wonderful grace, and acquired through faith. Let us follow their example!

[1] Richard Brooks, The Name High over All: A Commentary on Hebrews, Welwyn Commentary Series (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP, 2016), 384.

[2] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 809.

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 451.

[4] Philip H Hacking, Opening up Hebrews, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 82.