Monday, July 28, 2008

What's this "Cloud of Witnesses" about?

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 (Heb 12:1)


I hate feeling pressured.

This verse used to have that effect on me. Of course I knew that these witnesses were the people mentioned in the great "Hall of Faith" in the previous chapter. They were superheroes of the past who were tortured and martyred for their faith in God. I would read about them with awe. Then I would arrive at Chapter 12, and I would read about them forming a great cloud of witnesses, which was supposed to make me keep pressing on in my own race toward the finish line.

Teachers would tell me that those people were all surrounding me, watching my progress and cheering me on. But I couldn't believe they would actually be cheering for me, since I knew I wasn't making any great strides at that point in my life. So the thought of all of those spiritual giants surrounding me and watching me quickly became oppressive. Instead of making me want to endure, it made me want to quit, knowing I could never be as strong and brave as they were.

Ok, so maybe I was weird, but that's really the effect it had on me. Did it have that effect on anyone else?

Anyway, over the past few years I've been greatly enjoying the teaching ministry of Pastor John Piper, and if there's any one thing that Piper is known for, it's God-centeredness. That's a well I love to drink deeply from, and it has given me a whole new perspective on this verse.

Jesus said, "You shall be My witnesses" (Acts 1:8).

Paul said, "For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. " (1Co 2:2)

Peter said, "To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins." (Acts 10:43)

Paul and Barnabas said, "Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness." (Acts 14:17)

Ananias (the devout one) said to Saul of Tarsus, "For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard." (Acts 22:15)

Jesus said to Saul, "But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. " (Acts 26:16)

Of course there are other verses that use the term "Witness" to refer to other things. But there does seem to be a strong trend toward God-centeredness when speaking of witnessing. And since the Bible is indisputably a God-centric book, that's not surprising.

So what's with this cloud of witnesses? Well, perhaps they do cheer us on. That's a happy thought. But with what do they cheer us? To what do they witness?

If God opened up my spiritual ears right now so that I could hear what those witnesses were saying, I'm sure I'd be encouraged if they said things like, "You're doing great." In fact, I wouldn't only be encouraged, I'd be astonished! But I think I'd also be disappointed if that was most of what they said. You see, if their focus was centered on me, and they were witnesses of what I was doing, or of my worth, it wouldn't be enough for me. I would have plenty of reasons to doubt their assessment, since my own sin and failure are so clear to me. I would feel, frankly, like they were no better than the pop-psychology gurus of our day who go around stroking everyone's egos, convinced that the greatest thing anyone can do is worship his own reflection. That's shallow. I don't want it.

I wish I could hear those witnesses. Do you know who I think they would witness about? Do you know what I think they would be saying with all the conviction of their hearts and souls, with all the joy and fervor and love that fills everyone in Heaven?

"God is worth it all! He is so worth it! His beauty and His love and His perfection and His grace and His hope and His peace really are enough to sustain you and give you joy, even if they take all of your things and your family abandons you and you're tortured and imprisoned and killed. We know! We've been there. We're just ordinary people, but God came through for us! When we went through our tribulations, He drew closer to us than we ever could have imagined, and He'll do the same for you. When He reveals Himself more fully to you in your heart, you will be so glad to count all things as loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord! You will never regret it, because He is so wonderful!"

That, my friends, is the kind of "Cloud of Witnesses" that makes me want to pick up my weary feet and run some more. May we be such God-centered witnesses even before we leave this earth!

(Photo from Stock.xchng by Mordoc, edited for this site)
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