In his famous work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly businessman who learned the true meaning of Christmas. Three important characters in the transformation of Scrooge from sinner to saint were the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future.
The book of Hebrews is written by a Jewish believer to several Jewish attendees at a Christian church in the first century, some of whom followed Jesus and others who probably did not. Due to increasing persecution, the Jews in this church seemed to be wavering in their commitment to the Lord. The purpose was to encourage these people to renew their Christian commitment. In Hebrews 11 the writer reminded his readers of some of the greatest men and women in Hebrew history, noting that they completed their life-race in service to God, and reassuring his audience that they would as well. Hebrews 12 remarked that these heroes of old form a great crowd of witnesses which would help contemporary saints stay faithful to the Lord. The focus of the race is Jesus Christ, the length is our life, and the plan is to finish together.
What was true in the first century Roman Empire is true today; Christians are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses helping them to complete their race. I was driving north on 395 towards DC a few weeks ago and was thinking about our church. There is good teaching, but people need more than knowledge about living for Jesus, they need power. Hebrews 11 and 12 discuss the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds each believer as he walks along the journey of life. This cloud gives believers power to live for Jesus. Our cloud of witnesses gives us power through:
- teaching and example
- resources in the physical world
- bearing one another’s burdens
Many people are in our cloud of witnesses, and we are in the cloud of witnesses for many others. There are three types of witnesses in our cloud, Witnesses Past (those leave the world before we enter it), Witnesses Present (those who are in the world at least partly in the same time that we are), and Witnesses Future (those who enter the world after we leave it). There is one other category, Witnesses to Others, because while others may be witnesses past, present or future to us, we are the same to them. We need to prayerfully consider how we serve those roles in the lives of those around us.
Too often we read the Bible only from our own perspective, as 21st century AD Westerners looking over the shoulders of 10th century BC Middle Easterners. In our better moments we read it (as best we can) from the point of view of the recipients, as 10th century BC Middle Easterners. Occasionally we try to grasp the perspective of characters in the story, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and their relationships to each other.
To Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph fell into the “witnesses past” category. He would never have been in Egypt had Abraham not left Ur to journey to Palestine and Joseph served God faithfully after being sold as a slave to Potiphar. Moses was able to accomplish all of his amazing work in establishing Israel as a nation because Abraham followed God from Ur to Haran and Joseph followed him into success in Egypt.
Moses was a “witness past” to everyone in 11:32. As the leader of the Exodus and the Lawgiver, he influenced Israel in their path towards God in countless ways. The judges could not have defended Israel if Moses had not led the people out of Egypt nor could David have ruled as her king. If we consider how Moses, and all of these people, spoke after their deaths, as Abel did in 11:4:
How can we speak after our earthly death?
- Our teachings speak through whatever we say and write.
- Our example speaks in the lives of anyone who has seen us live, whether our biological descendants or others we have influenced. This is especially true if we are written about.
- Our work speaks through the institutions that we have influenced.
- Our decisions speak to those who follow us by directly influencing them.
- Our body speaks in the Better Country.
Witnesses past include family members who went to glory before we were born. They also include great Christian thinkers, leaders, preachers and writers from yesteryear. When I ask audiences who they would include as Witnesses Past, many mention great grandparents, famous writers such as C.S Lewis, and famous preachers such as Charles Spurgeon. Others note William Wilberforce and Martin Luther. None of these men were perfect, but they all assisted contemporaries and descendants as they ran their race to Christ.
Your cloud includes people who are walking with you, but also includes those who have gone before. How have you received help in your Christian race from those who have gone before you in your cloud?
- Who have you known that has had the greatest impact on your Christian life?
- Name someone who you have not known, who died before you were born but is not in the Bible, who has had a great impact on your Christian life.
- What did they do for you? (Teaching, example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, bearing burdens, something else?).
- Do you recognize all of the ways in which these people helped you to win in your race towards Christ?
There is another way in which Witnesses Past help us succeed in our race toward Christ. Sometimes understanding the Bible is difficult because the gulf between the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean basin and the modern Western World is too great. Rather to trying to jump the cultural, linguistic, temporal and geographic chasms between America in the 21st century AD and Mesopotamia in the 21st century BC, for example, we may have more success if we break our study into steps. When faced with a cryptic passage in Romans, for example, we may first review the work of Matthew Henry (17th century AD), then Thomas Aquinas (13th century), then Augustine (4th century) and finally Romans itself (1st century). Often members of our cloud of witnesses who lived in the past can illuminate our questions today.
The writer of Hebrews used ancient heroes in Hebrew history to encourage his readers, but many of the people in the list were “witnesses present” to each other. Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac lived at the same time as a family and encouraged each other towards godliness (11:8-12). Abram and Sarai shared fellowship and encouragement on the long road from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan. She followed Abram faithfully as he obeyed God’s leading. He provided resources from the flocks and she used them to meet the needs of their family and servants. When they made foolish decisions, such as when Abram lied about Sarai being his wife and Sarai gave her handmaiden Hagar as a concubine to her husband, they endured.
In our lives, Witnesses Present may include our families, our friends, our parents, contemporary Christian writers, pastors, and other leaders, and many others. They teach us, exemplify right behavior, encourage us, give us fellowship, hold us accountable, and bear our burdens. Sometimes the Lord brings people into our lives just once to encourage us, protect us, and otherwise serve Him. We may never see these people again on this side of heaven, but they are important members of our cloud of witnesses at that time.
Who is in your current cloud of “witnesses present”? How have they helped you in your race towards Christ? Have you thanked them? How do you need them to help you in your race towards Christ? Have you asked them? Gratitude is one of the most important Christian virtues; are you grateful for your Witnesses Present?
The readers of the book of Hebrews would recognize the great prophets of old such as Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah in Hebrews 11:33-38. In Israelite tradition, young men would ask such great prophets to teach them and gather together into schools of prophecy (Hebrews 6:1-7). Such Men of God would thus mentor younger men, literally becoming part of their cloud of witnesses as they helped each other in the faith.
Military leadership training highlights the importance of mentorship, both formal and informal. Young officers are told to seek leaders that they respect to mentor them in the art of war. Young men of yesteryear would find skilled craftsmen and ask to be their apprentice so that they could learn a trade.
Who are people in your life that you would like to be more involved in your cloud of witnesses? These are people that might mentor you in the faith.
Who are people in your life that you would like to be a greater part of their cloud of witnesses? These are people that you might mentor in the faith.
How should you approach them? What should you say? Do you have space in your life for them? Do they have space in their lives for you? Even if they cannot give you time, what can you learn from their example? What about their writings or other works?
Another question is what should you give up to make space in your life to improve your cloud of witnesses? Are there bad activities? Are there good activities that take time away from the best activities? Are you taking care of your physical body, including getting good sleep, healthy food, and plenty of exercise? Psalm 101:3-4 says “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes…a perverse heart shall depart from me”, implying that even family or friends, if they insist on practicing evil, should lose their influence on you, though you continue to care for and pray for them.
Witnesses for Others
The heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 thought of the future as well as the present and the past (11:20-22). They had an eye to what their sons would do, both returning to Canaan and following God as a mighty nation when the time came. They blessed their children through teaching/example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, and bearing burdens, but they also blessed them by guiding them in what they needed to do in the future. Thus they recognized that while others were in their cloud of witnesses, they were in others cloud of witnesses, and these great men intentionally helped them.
Who are you in the cloud of witnesses for? Whose witness should you be? How are you helping them in their race towards Christ? How should you be? If you are a mentor to others, do you have a special time and place set aside for them? There is an inexpensive restaurant near my house that I use for meetings and mentoring. My preferred time is 0700 on Saturday mornings, early enough that my family is still asleep and I don’t take time away from them.
The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. It was never meant to be lived only with people of your own age, and it was never meant to be lived only with people in your generation. The cloud of witnesses that helps each believer extends from time immemorial in the past to eternity in the future. As we focus on Jesus throughout the race of our lives, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Even on earth, witnesses past, present and future help us in our walk towards our God.