By Brannon Howse
The Scripture: Therefore we also, 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 let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
The Twist: People use this verse to say we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”—believers who have gone on to glory and are watching us run the Christian race. Many folks think their Christian loved ones who have passed away know what those still on earth are doing and that the ones in heaven are watching and cheering them on.
Let’s understand what this verse is really saying by looking at what has been laid out in the previous chapter. Notice that Hebrews 12:1 starts with, “Therefore, we also....” So we need to ask, “What is that ‘therefore’ there for?” The answer is that it signals that everything we just read in Hebrews 11—which is known as the “faith Hall of Fame”—impacts how we understand what is about to be said. Hebrews 11 details many Old Testament characters who faithfully served God. Some even chose to be martyrs rather than to betray the Lord. See, for instance, Hebrews 11:36-38:
Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
The transitional “therefore” at the beginning of Hebrews 12 leads us to this conclusion: Therefore, having heard, through the Word of God, the testimony of those who have gone before us, let us also run a faithful and obedient race. Hebrews 12:1-2 is not talking about a bunch of people who have gone on to glory and are watching what we’re doing down here. This reference to witnesses is like someone who goes to court to give testimony, not a witness as in someone watching a race, a football game, or some other activity. The people described in Hebrews 11 are giving testimony, even to this day, by the way they lived their lives. They testify to the truthfulness of the Gospel. Their lives have proclaimed this truth, and they are being remembered in Hebrews 11. Then, in Hebrews 12, we are exhorted that, because of their strong witness, because of their perseverance, because of their faithfulness, because of their obedience, you and I also must run the same way as these witnesses did. The “cloud” reference in Hebrews 12:1-2 also does not refer to people sitting on the clouds in heaven, witnessing what we’re doing, but the cloud or group of witnesses described in the previous chapter.
Although people whose loved ones are believers gone on to glory like to think those people are aware of what they’re doing down here, we have no indication of that happening other than one tenuous reference in Revelation. Revelation 6:10 hints that they may understand at least where we are in the timeframe of God’s prophetic calendar, but it gives no indication they know the details of what is going on here beyond understanding that God has yet to judge Satan and his evil servants.
Revelation 6:10 speaks of those who have just been slaughtered during the tribulation—there’s a great slaughter of true believers during the tribulation. In fact, if you go over to Revelation 7:9, you’ll see that so many people become believers during the tribulation, that no one could number them:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
These were people who had been murdered, mostly during the tribulation. In Revelation 6:10, these martyrs wonder about God’s timetable for justice:
And they cried out with a loud voice saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
This is not a call for vengeance; these people are simply calling for righteousness to prevail.
We can’t take from this scripture more than it really says. We don’t know how much those in heaven are aware of what has gone on or is going on down here, but they seem to understand that the Lord has not yet defeated Satan and the antichrist. So, they’re aware of some things: where we are in God’s prophetic calendar, that they just came out of the tribulation in which they were martyred, and that Jesus Christ has yet to defeat, judge, and bind Satan and his evil servants as described in Revelation 20.
This does not suggest that people who have gone on to glory are aware of what individuals on earth do each day. And so to construe Hebrews 12:1-2 to mean that the “great cloud of witnesses” surround us and watch what’s going on down here is not an accurate understanding. Rather, they are faithful people in heaven giving testimony to the truthfulness of the Gospel as reflected in their lives and even by their willingness to be killed because of their loyalty and obedience to God.
Copyright 2014 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.