The cloud of witnesses.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 February

Hebrews 12.1.

Hebrews 12.1 NIV
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…

Growing up, my pastor liked to start his sermons by referring to a recent football or baseball game. He was a big sports nerd, as were other people in our church.

Many of whom hate the label “sports nerd,” ’cause they’re from a generation where “nerd” wasn’t recognized—as it is today—as a good thing. Part of how they figured they could dodge the “nerd” label was by getting into sports: Supposedly sports is the opposite of nerdery. But it’s not at all. Nerdery is about obsessive interest, and sports nerds are frequently way bigger nerds than those who are into video games and comic books. Anyway I digress.

Mom wasn’t a fan, knew nothing about any of the teams or athletes Pastor would go on and on about, and wanted him to hurry up and get to Jesus. The sports references irritated her. “Why‘s he always gotta talk about sports?” she groused. Because that’s what nerds do.

And there’s precedent in the bible. Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews liked to make reference to track and field events. Every large city in the Roman Empire—Jerusalem included!—had an amphitheater where games were held. Yeah, sometimes they were gory gladiator fights. But there were also footraces and chariot races; same as NASCAR today, humans have always felt the need for speed. And the apostles liked to refer to these races as metaphors for the Christian life.

Problem is, lots of Christians don’t know about ancient sports, and don’t understand the references.

Namely there’s Hebrews’ author’s mention of a νέφος μαρτύρων/néfos martýron, “cloud of witnesses.” Christians read that and assume it refers to a crowd of witnesses. Which is actually how the NLT chose to render it.

Hebrews 12.1 NLT
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

No, a néfos isn’t an ancient synonym of ὄχλος/ókhlos, “crowd.” You don‘t see other first-century authors using néfos to describe a lot of people. Clouds meant clouds. Or haze, or mist; or if the clouds weren’t made of water, smoke or dust.

But Christians make the assumption the “witnesses” refer to a large crowd of spectators on the sidelines or in the stands. And why are they on the sidelines? Why are they only witnessing our race, instead of getting down there on the field and helping, coaching, maybe running with us?

Well, I’ve heard many a preacher explain, it’s because they’re dead.

No, really. The word μάρτυς/mártys is properly translated “witness,” as in someone who saw something happen, and can therefore give testimony before a judge. But quite frequently Christians translate it literally as “martyr”—and our culture adds a whole extra meaning to that word. To us a martyr isn’t just someone who witnessed stuff. Martyrs are victims. They had stuff done to them. In the case of Christian martyrs, they usually got killed because they were Christian, and wouldn’t renounce Jesus even when threatened with death.

So these “witnesses“ aren’t just ordinary human spectators: They’re the ghosts of dead Christians. They’re in the stands because they can’t participate, ’cause they’re dead. But they can look down from heaven—which is up in the clouds, isn’t it? So that’s why the author of Hebrews brought up a cloud.

Yeah, it’s a thoroughly creepy idea. But popular Christian culture is full of ideas like this: Totally wrong, and kinda pagan, but nobody challenges or doubts them, because some folks actually find comfort in the idea of dead people watching over us. Unless it’s that one pervy uncle, and we’re bathing. But otherwise…

Nevermind. Should I get to the proper context of this verse? Probably should.

The hall of faith.

Hebrews 12 obviously follows Hebrews 11, the “hall of faith” chapter, in which the apostle defined faith and gave Old Testament examples of saints who achieved great things when they trusted God. By faith Abel pleased God, Enoch got raptured, Noah built a box, Abraham emigrated to Canaan, Sarah gave birth to Isaac in her nineties—and Abraham was nonetheless willing to sacrifice him.

Hebrews 11.32-40
32 And what more could I say?—for time will run out before describing
the judges Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jeftha; and also David, Samuel, and the prophets.
33 They conquered kings by faith. Did righteous works. Were granted promises. Stopped lions’ mouths.
34 Put out powerful fires. Escaped the machete’s mouth. Overcame weakness.
Produced strength in war. Knocked down foreign armies.
35 Women raised people from the dead. Others were tortured while still awaiting rescue
—so they might see an even greater thing, resurrection.
36 Yet others, mocking and whipping, take the test, and are still in chains, in prison.
37 They’re stoned to death, sawn in half, tortured, stabbed to death by machete,
travel in sheepskins, hide in goatskins, go deprived, crushed, mistreated.
38 The world doesn’t value them—wandering the wilds, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
39 By faith, all these witnesses don’t yet receive the promise 40 of God for us—
something better he provided in advance, so they might not finish the job without us.

This’d be the “so great a cloud of witnesses” in the footrace of faith we’re running. But y’notice it’s not just Old Testament saints. The apostle’s talking about them right up to verse 33… but then in verse 34 she starts writing about stories we don’t find in the Old Testament. Like these obvious examples:

  • Putting out fires.
  • Women rising the dead.
  • People getting tortured while awaiting rescue.
  • People in chains in prison.
  • People stabbed to death.
  • Traveling and hiding in skins—which doesn’t refer to uncomfortable leather clothing, but the fact these people were being smuggled into places in bags.

The other stuff—yeah, we can sorta find instances of them in the OT. (Getting sawn in half is supposedly how Jeremiah died, which isn’t in the bible but still kinda counts as an Old Testament testimony.) Still, the apostle seems to be referring to recent things God’s people were going through. She’s lumping then-present-day Christians together with the long-ago saints.

So it’s not just dead saints. The cloud of witnesses includes living saints. Still does.

It’s not a heavenly cloud at all.

Where were first-century track and field events performed? In a stadium. What was the stadium field paved with? Well it wasn’t paved at all; and if it was a stone floor (as we see in the Coliseum of Rome, ’cause they built stuff beneath the floor) they’d cover it with dirt or sand.

What happens when you run on dirt? Not a lot, when you’re by yourself. But when there’s a group of runners, you produce… a dust cloud.

So the cloud of witnesses is not a crowd of spectators. They’re other runners. On the field, running with us.

You have, I hope, experienced God’s blessings. As a result you can testify of those blessings to others. The Old Testament saints likewise experienced God’s blessings, shared their testimonies with others, and because those testimonies are in the bible, their testimonies are shared with readers and listeners round the globe. They witness even today. And you, and they, are runners together. Generating a huge cloud.

First-century sports nerds would know this. Twenty-first century sports nerds, not so much. It’s hard to see the runners when they’re kicking up dirt! So our tracks are now made of polyurethane. No more clouds. But now we lost sight of what “cloud” meant, and had to invent other weird explanations.

The author of Hebrews brought up the Old Testament saints to show her readers where faith took these people. But she calls ’em a “cloud of witnesses” so she can put us smack dab in the middle of them. We’re running with them. Not so much as competitors; we’re part of a giant relay. They run their legs of the race. We run ours.

The cloud of witnesses doesn’t consist of masters, but equals. We have one master, Christ Jesus. Mt 23.10 There are no spectators in this race. Not even Jesus is a spectator: He ran it himself, and won. The best of us are gonna get a distant second place. But there’s no reason why the greatest in God’s kingdom can’t be a present-day saint. (Could be you!) Considering all the whoring and compromising he did, I’m betting most of us could easily outpace Samson.

The level playing field is meant to encourage us to step up. Yeah, the heroes of faith achieved mighty things for God. So can we! So let’s do so. Let’s stop thinking of them as impossible standard-bearers. Jesus is our standard-bearer. Which is why, in this race of faith, the writer of Hebrews told us to fix our eyes on him in the very next verse:

Hebrews 12.1-4
1 Consequently we, being greatly encircled by a cloud of witnesses,
throwing away every training weight and easily-distracting sin,
can enduringly run the race lying before us,
2 looking at the start and finish of our faith, Jesus.
Instead of the joy lying before him, Jesus endured a cross, dismissing the shame.
Now he sits at the right of God’s throne!
3 For analyze such endurance—for sinners, the antithesis of himself.
Thus you shouldn’t be sick in your soul, nor let up.
4 Till now, you haven’t resisted in the struggle against sin to the point of bloodshed.

Jesus is the only spectator in the stands. The rest of us are running for him. Kicking up a mighty big cloud. But don’t look at them; they’re not looking at us; they too are watching him. Rightly so: He showed us all how it’s done.