By Fred O. Blakely
"Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.., run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:1-2, ASV).
The race of earthly life, which God has appointed for His saints, is not run in isolation. It takes place before an immensely large gallery of witnesses and sympathetic spectators situated in the heavenly places, not to mention its observers who are yet in the world. That seems to be what the Apostle is asserting in the text, as he exhorts the runners to faith, patience, and perseverance. By faith, says he in another place, we are "come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem . . . to the general assembly and church of the Firstborn . . . and to the spirits of just men made perfect" (vv. 22-24).
We are not to run with our mind's eye primarily upon the human witnesses, but upon Jesus, the only Mediator between God and man, it is made quite clear. Neither do we have personal access to the heavenly witnesses, so that we should pray to them, Christ being our only Avenue of contact with God and the spirit world. Notwithstanding, it is well for us to realize that, in the theater of the present world, heaven's gallery of onlookers is there and deeply concerned that we finish our course therein with triumph and joy.
Background and Sense of the Text. "In this text there is evident allusion to the games of the ancient Greeks, or rather to those which Herod the Great had introduced in Palestine in imitation of the Grecian games. The exercises were performed in the arena of a vast amphitheater, around which immense crowds of spectators, often amounting to from 25,000 to 100,000, were arranged on seats, rising high one above another.
Corresponding with these assembled multitudes of anxious spectators is the 'cloud of witnesses' by whom the Hebrew Christians are said to be surrounded while running their race for the crown of life. Those crowned victors are here represented as a cloud on account of their immense number (Ezek. 38:9,16), as well perhaps as on account of their elevated position.
"But why are they called witnesses? The majority of commentators maintain that these faithful ones are called witnesses (1) on account of the testimony which they have borne as to the power and efficacy of faith and of God's fidelity, and (2) on account of their being spectators of our conduct in the arduous but honorable race which lies before us." Thus, the mainstream view is that "the Apostle represents these glorified saints, not only as witnesses of the faith, but also as spectators of our conduct."
"But, in representing them as spectators, gathered over and around us, he wishes to indicate that these same champions of the faith will be witnesses for or against us, according to the manner in which we deport ourselves in the great conflict of life. (See Matt. 12:41-42.) The original word for 'witness' never means merely a spectator. It may, however, as in the case of the Apostle, denote one who sees and hears with the view of bearing witness."
The Nature of the Witnessing. "But in what sense are these witnesses of the faith and of our demeanor spectators also of the Christian conflict? Is it in a literal or in a metaphorical sense? The words must be taken as distinctively implying community between the church triumphant and the church below. They signify that they who have entered into the heavenly rest are conscious of what passes among ourselves. Any interpretation short of this leaves the exhortation tame and without point. If they are merely quasi-witnesses, merely witnesses in a metaphor, the motive, so far as this clause supplies one, is gone. Thus, it appears that the spirits of the just made perfect are real witnesses of our conduct. This is certainly the most natural inference from our text, and it seems to be supported by several parallel passages. See I Cor. 13:12; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 6:1, 3, 5, 7, etc."
Encouragement of the Situation. Knowledge of this spiritual gallery is certainly not without relevance and utility for the struggling saint. "In the midst of affliction and weariness, as well as of powerful temptations to apostatize, how are our fainting hearts to be revived and sustained? A great motive is here presented: the presence as spectators of the former heroes of God. The Old-Testament saints are 'witnesses' now of the race which they once ran themselves. They not only testify to the power of faith; they also are spectators of the struggles and conflicts of their successors.
"The Apostle's language is not that merely of poetic imagination. He seems to say 'the spirits of just men made perfect' are cognizant of what is done upon the earth, and take an absorbing interest in it. We are to think of them as hovering over us in the heavens. They circle and crowd around us, tier upon tier, on both sides of the race-course. On the one side [we may suppose] is the gallery of the saints before the Flood, that of the Hebrew pilgrims, of the heroes of the Exodus, of the Judges, and of the Prophets. On the other side is the gallery of the Apostles, that of the Christian confessors and martyrs, and of our departed brethren who have gone to glory.
"These spectators are a 'great cloud'—multitudinous in number. They are radiant with the brightness of immortality. And, having themselves passed through the same experience as we, they keenly sympathize with us." We should, therefore, take heart, as we realize all this, and press resolutely on "toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). So shall "the things which are not seen" exert their proper constraint upon us, enabling us to both endure and overcome in the momentary conflict of this life (II Cor. 4:17-18).